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Question No. 1 For Leaders Of Innovation

“Why should I follow you?”

When you introduce your vision to have your company be even more innovative, you may think your employees will ask about cost, potential audience, probable success rates, “time to market” and the like. And they will—out loud.

But the first (unasked) question that pops into their heads is going to be: “Why should I follow you?” By which they mean: “Why should I believe you are going to take us where we need to go?”

Even though they are (probably) not going to ask you those things directly, you need to answer their unspoken concerns before you do anything else. Otherwise, you are not going to get either their full attention or their best work.

So how should you address their concerns, spoken or not? Our answer shares three parts. None of the parts are based on theory or an academic view of innovation. All three parts are based on practices learned from being in the trenches, with Davids and Goliaths, intended to give you the essential principles to employ. We guarantee that if you internalize these (not just understand them intellectually) and put them into practice, you will become a much more effective leader, especially when it comes to innovation.

1. Focus On The Essential

Innovation leaders focus on the essential versus the important. It’s easy to spend your time on “the important”—the checklist of the important is never-ending, and it is critically important to get them done and done right. For example, you need a world-class, de-risked, expert innovation process that can consistently crank out the “right” new ideas. In contrast, effectively building and leveraging your war chest of innovation assets is essential (the process itself is merely an important means to get to the essential).

Here are two essential innovation assets:

a) You.

Your leadership is the most essential asset of all. If you want to change the world, you have to first change yourself and let go of the “winning formula” that got you to where you are (it is likely holding you back from getting to an even higher level). Be an innovation project yourself and develop a team of innovation leaders who are open to doing the hard work of challenging and adapting their own beliefs, language, behaviors and interactions. The best investment in collective mastery is an investment in individual mastery.

b) Your culture.

Creating clarity and alignment around how innovative and agile you want your culture to be is essential. There is a direct correlation between how effective you are at deploying financial capital and how wisely you choose to leverage your organization’s social capital. You need quantifiable metrics that reflect the progress you are truly making (or not making) toward having the desired culture of innovation that celebrates failure and demonstrates the belief that great ideas can come from anywhere.

Only the essentials have the power to transform institutions and the power to consistently deliver better innovation results. Here’s another way of thinking about this: You put the important on a to-do list; essentials goes on a to-die-for list.

2. Stay Above The Drama

Recessions/transitions/restructurings are, by definition, temporary. Understanding that is key to your ability to focus on the desired outcome and the kind of organization you want to build.

What it comes down to is this: Are you shaping the future or reacting to the uncertainty of it? Are you working on the essentials or are you responding to the emotions (e.g., fear, stress, self-doubt) that come with the role of shaping the future?

Here’s an easy way to tell. Check your emotional state.

  • Do you act like a victim? (If you complain about anything, the answer is yes.)
  • Are you looking for someone or something to blame? (If you are using the recession, your boss, your team, your calendar, your budget, your culture as an excuse…the answer is yes.)

If you answer yes to either of these questions and others like them, you have allowed yourself to become part of the drama. It’s a seductive trap that we all fall into because it relieves us from the pressure of taking unconditional responsibility (regardless of the circumstances). But it typically means that you—and the company—are stuck. You are wasting precious resources, time and energy focusing on the wrong things. Entertaining the drama makes you feel productive, and you will be super busy. You will work nights and weekends (and miss spending time with your family) while working on these distractions. But it doesn’t get you any closer to delivering on your goals. Drama is like kryptonite to your innovation efforts. Choose to respond differently. Instead of letting yourself be trapped by the drama, respond more generatively—like a creator.

3. Lean Into Adversity (Be Counterintuitive) And Find Opportunities

We have written a lot about this before, during and after the economic downturn. Leaning into adversity is counterintuitive and it makes people uncomfortable.

But adversity (otherwise known as tension/conflict) isn’t going to end just because the recession does. There always will be system conflicts and “Napster Moments” when a competitor who does the unexpected and upends your market. You can bet in the coming months, consumers are going to demand something you just can’t provide today. Financing that you were absolutely certain was going to be there suddenly won’t be.

When those things occur, conservative managers act as they always have: They cut back on anything risky or new that can’t reliably demonstrate short-term payback. They slash marketing, growth and research budgets. They hunker down and go the safe/survival route. For many, it dooms their company to suffer permanent damage—which is really what they were trying to protect against in the first place. Many of these leaders end up on the wrong side of history.

Believe in yourself and choose to do the counterintuitive, even if it makes you uncomfortable. Don’t be one of those leaders who turns into a turtle. Plan for and stick to a focused and flexible growth strategy  regardless of the circumstances—ALWAYS. You can’t risk not doing enough. The cost of NOT innovating is always greater than taking the risk.

If you need inspiration and courage, borrow from the best. Warren Buffett made his fortune by following an adage he came up with a long time ago: “Be fearful when others are greedy—be greedy when others are fearful.”

Why should your people follow you? Because you have demonstrated by words and actions that you are committed to living like an innovation leader and empowering next—in the best and worst of times.

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