Innovation is a broad and arguably over-used term that has been bombarded at the C-suite community over the past few years. Marketers, ‘thought leaders’, analysts even us as K2 Advisory – we’re all guilty of using it – or rather, over-using it. Unfortunately, this has happened because, as a word, “innovation” has become something of a ‘short-hand’ for so many things: it is a quick and easy way to express new approaches, new models, better ways of working and so on.

Despite any “innovation fatigue” we might all be suffering, the fact remains that it is still very much valid – especially so in a time of economic difficulty and uncertainty.

And of course, the role IT can play in enabling it is still very key – provided you get it right. As Shell CIO, Alan Matula, recently described it: “….the key to innovation is having a real dialogue at the business-portfolio level to understand where technology is important. That means a change of mind-set and skills, moving from a focus on the basic infrastructure of business administration to a position as close to the business leaders’ needs as possible.”

The best leaders do it
Whether you’re comfortable using the “I” word, or whether you consciously try to avoid it, there is not getting away from the fact that the most successful leaders know that being innovative ultimately holds the key to better growth and margins.

This is born out in IBM’s latest CEO study (read more here: http://www-935.ibm.com/services/us/ceo/ceostudy2010/?sa_campaign=message/leaf1/gbs/study/CEO), which states that CEOs who are capitalising most from today’s increasingly volatile, complex and uncertain world:

  1. embody creative leadership
  2. are reinventing customer relationships
  3. are building greater levels of operational dexterity.

Rewind a couple of years, and I dare say that all of these qualities would have been earmarked: innovation. But interestingly, this study makes far fewer direct references “innovation” than I was expecting. My guess is that both IBM and the CEOs interviewed see the merits of being more explicit about their success factors. This is an encouraging evolution. It indicates not that innovation is disappearing from the CEO radar, but that it is becoming embedded in behaviour, processes and systems.

There are of course organisations that claim to be innovative (they even have “innovation” in their mission statement) when in fact they are not. They “talk the talk” but don’t “walk the walk”. Making innovation happen comes down to having the right processes in place. It’s not just about having the ideas – it’s about having the operational aptitude to make those ideas happen. And that is much easier said than done. For many organisations, being innovative is a bit like trying to attain your “five a day”: you know you should probably do it – even though you’re not entirely sure what it comprises. But you only ever get some way to achieving it.

If your organisation is serious about being more innovative – and particularly if you are trying to convert a cynical audience – the trick is to be very explicit about what you mean; wherever possible validate your reference to “innovation” and be sure to focus on processes as much as ideas.

At K2 we are just about to undertake some research around this subject matter. We will be assessing how organisations can embed innovation within their structure; not only in terms of generating new ideas and approaches but also in making sure which innovative ideas merit execution and then become operational. We will be analysing whether innovation requires a new professional business role and, if so, what the options are for recruiting, training and developing these skills. You can contact me on [email protected] if you have any suggestions or contributions you would like to make.

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