Renowned lean executive coach Michael Ballé offers 5 tips for CEOs to help sustain a culture of innovation in their organizations.
Innovation: everyone wants it, but are you ready to do what it takes to make it happen? I have been privileged to spend time with CEOs of innovative companies, in terms of new services to society, with new use of new technologies and, when they can, on-going innovation within the company.
Innovation is typically the result of a technical insight – someone figures out to do something new with an appearing tech, then finds a business model to fund growth, and solves the immediate technical problems to make it work. Innovative companies usually grow out of a sequence of breakthroughs that turn a start-up into a viable firm.
But, by then, key technical choices are made, functional departments are organized to maintain processes (Finance, HR, Marketing, etc.) and innovation becomes a “something” we need to plan for: Where is the market going? What are our innovation gaps? What plans do we need to catch up, keep abreast, continue to innovate – in a controlled and structured way so as not to challenge the status quo?
If a truly innovative idea appears, awkward at first but with true disruptive potential – kill it quick!
How Do You Sustain a Culture of Innovation?
To sustain a culture of constant innovation in the face of bureaucratic opposition (which they are often unwittingly the source of through their management choices) the CEOs I know first had to change themselves and learn five difficult skills:
- Look for innovation every day. Truly innovative ideas are often badly born. Someone solves a technical problem by cobbling a solution together in unexpected ways and does the baby looks ugly! If senior leaders are not on the constant lookout for such moments, innovative thinking will get smothered by day to day work and “the way we do things here”.
- Recognize innovation for its potential, not its actual. People solve problems all the time, but often, they find workarounds by pushing the work further away from the final process or the customer – for instance, solving a difficulty by subcontracting. Truly innovative solutions bring value forward, closer to the customer, in unexpected way. Even if they don’t truly work right now, of if they came up to solve some marginal issue, innovative ideas need to be recognized for their potential for disruption, not dismissed for their (often obvious) flaws. This means training one’s mind at thinking like a scout (what have I got here?) and not a general (I see where I can put this to use immediately), which is not easy for executives who see themselves as there to command others. It requires cultivating curiosity every day.
- Challenge without discouraging. In order to get innovation to bloom you need to be able to discuss in-depth ideas with people and push them hard to experiment more or go deeper into their insight. This means challenging without discouraging and it’s a skill. A key management shift is to move from command-and-control, which doesn’t make much sense when it comes to innovation, to challenge-and-support.
- Support innovative thinkers. One needs to realize the extent to which innovative thinkers are under pressure from their more conformist colleagues, every day, all the time. Provide innovative thinkers support by giving them permission, removing obstacles, finding funding and budget lines, promoting them and so on. Because they don’t do think in the usual way, and because they’re unlikely to be as good at office politics as at being creative, innovative thinkers tend to rub people the wrong way, which is why they need this support.
- Learn to learn. Back to point 1, if you haven’t discovered at least one innovative idea this week, it’s because you’re not looking hard enough. Innovative ideas don’t come where we expect them – they don’t nicely fit existing problems and solve them completely and totally. Innovative ideas are an unexpected next step that opens up a realm of possibilities because it goes outside the current frame. And as a senior exec you need to realize that the territory is much larger than you’d thought and that there are driving constraints you hadn’t considered. Learning to learn is about figuring out what still needs to be learned.
Innovation is a process not an event. It doesn’t occur in moments of isolated genius – it’s a messy process of working with colleagues to tinker in the garage, challenge and refine existing theories, and build better measuring tools. It’s strongly emotional, fraught with excitement and contradiction – and includes arguments and moments of sheer joy as people tackle real problems in new ways. In other words, it’s profoundly subversive and goes against every known management process. That is why CEOs need to delve in and build a culture of innovation hands-on by looking, recognizing, and supporting innovative thinking – and by taking it to its full disruptive potential.
Michael Ballé, PH.D. is a best-selling author, speaker and co-founder of the Institut Lean France. He holds a doctorate from the Sorbonne in Social Sciences and Knowledge Sciences. He is also a renowned lean executive coach. His latest book is The Lean Strategy (with Dan Jones, Jacques Chaize and Orry Fiume).