Innovation ‐ whose job is it anyway?

David Sneesby, Managing Partner at Signium United Kingdom, discusses Innovation and where the responsibility for it sits within the organisation.

Innovate or Die – how true is this?

According to Edward de Bono "There is no doubt that creativity is the most important human resource of all. Without creativity, there would be no progress, and we would be forever repeating the same patterns."

In business terms, the slogan ‘Innovate or die’ has been in print since 1958 and has been cited by such grandees of the business age as Bill Gates and Tom Peters. If you were around in 1955 and looked at the list of powerful companies listed on the Fortune 500, it would shock you to learn that 88% of them would not be around 60 years later. But that is what has happened.

Over the long term, it’s clear that business success will come to those who continue to interpret new ways to deliver on enhanced customer expectations. However, in the digital world, it has never been more true as entire businesses can find themselves bypassed almost overnight by a disruptive technology breakthrough.

At Signium, as consultants directly involved in the consumer sector, we are working with senior industry leaders focused on influencing customer behaviour and choice. Product and service innovation is central to commercial success and consumers are educated to expect, want and demand the “new improved” version. It keeps them coming back for more. We are all looking forward to the next mobile phone upgrade. It is the role of the R&D team to out-manoeuvre the competition with the next release with even more features and benefits than before.

Innovation is back on the agenda, but fear still prevalent

In times of economic uncertainty, such as we have endured recently, innovation tends to take a back seat as companies batten down the hatches. However, based on some of the most recent assignment briefs we have been working on at Signium, several of our clients seem to think that it is time to become more proactive again where innovation is concerned.

The creation of a new role of Innovation Director is a proactive response to help kick-start the process of creative thinking following a period where the appetite for change has been dulled. It is clear that many organisations have been focussing on their “core activities” and have adopted a maintenance mode to ride out the recession. 

The UK is still operating as a risk averse environment. There is an underlying reticence to change and take risk and fear has developed. Syl Saller, Global Innovation Director at Diageo, commented recently at a conference targeted at marketers that “you should separate the risks in your head from the actual risk of failure”.

Innovation is risky but necessary. As Jawaharlal Nehru said, “The policy of being too cautious is the greatest risk of all”. 

As Saller added, “you should take responsibility for change that you want to see. You should separate the risks in your head from the actual risk of failure”

Innovation Directors – beyond the suggestion box to a culture of innovation

So, what is behind the thinking of creating a new role of Innovation Director? Having an Innovation Department suggests that responsibility and accountability for this activity lies in the hands of a few “experts” – much like the R&D department. Does this then mean others in the organisation can/should stop thinking of new ideas because the thinking is being taken care of in the Innovation Department? 

“The pitfalls of an ill-conceived employee suggestion program are multiple, legendary and most frequently - avoidable”

But shouldn’t it be the responsibility of every single employee to come up with new ideas – after all, it is they that have the most interaction with the customers, processes, services and products. Having a voice and a channel to express ideas must be good, mustn’t it? Indeed, fundamental to the Kaizen method is placing the responsibility for idea generation on those closest to the process.

Herein lies the key. Whilst it is the Innovation Director that takes ultimate responsibility, that person needs to create a structure and culture that generates innovative change through those closest to the customers, processes, services and products.

The appointment of an Innovation Director is a signal from leadership that they are getting serious about innovation. This is a powerful statement in and of itself, but it becomes more powerful still when this person is seen to be creating a system and culture of change that involves everyone in the organisation.

Ensuring that relevant staff are educated on the drivers of innovation lays the groundwork for communal involvement. Taking relevant staff through ideas such as the innovator’s mindset, the difference between being product centric and being customer centric, the digital mindset, the mobile mindset, journey mapping, voice of the customer programmes, lean thinking and agile development tools them up so that they can contribute better to the innovation programme.

Once the education phase has been delivered, these staff are challenged to come together in cross-functional teams to devise innovations. More importantly, those teams are also challenged to devise ways to implement those changes.

This delivers a portfolio of potential innovations that are customer-focused, with teams created to address specific challenges and deliver improvements. In this way, change and innovation is broadly based through an organisation, but driven by the Innovation Director.

In short, therefore, whilst Innovation Directors are responsible for innovation in an organisation, it is highly unlikely that they are actually devising the innovative solutions. Rather they are creating the structure, tools, programme and culture that enable those closest to the customer, services, products and processes to leverage their insights into workable innovations.

The Unseen Benefits of Innovation

An important by-product is that staff view the organisation differently, as more innovative and open to change. They also feel more valued for potentially being able to effect real change in the organisation. This can be almost as important as the changes themselves.

Further, as the organisation implements the changes, they will be perceived as a more dynamic place to work, which means the organisation will attract better talent, enabling them to perform better.

What do those in the role think?

a mandate – permission to innovate”

This approach is borne out by a tweet I read from David Armano, the recently appointed EVP, Global Innovation & Integration at Edelman. He commented that someone called Zachary Paradis had congratulated him on his appointment but didn’t know what the title meant! Armano responded by saying “innovation comes in waves of all sizes, but it’s something that every business needs to focus on—because it can ultimately create new opportunities which are essential for growth. Many organizations set up innovation incubators or labs and treat them as experiments. In my experience where I’ve seen this done, it leads to some interesting experiments—but a lack of adoption. This is where integration comes in. Innovations can often happen in nimble environments, but it doesn’t and shouldn’t be treated as a lab. Instead, innovations should occur in batches with the purpose of scaling and integrating more broadly. It’s the second half of the equation and can be accomplished with multiple teams focused on pushing things through to fruition.” He views his appointment as “a mandate from Edelman’s most senior leaders—permission to innovate.”

I recently came across an interesting discussion on innovation which I’d like to share with you. Ben Malbon is the Director of Creative Strategy at Google Creative Lab in New York. Google is famously innovative, of course, but this is not an accidental thing. Not all, but certain jobs come with the freedom to spend 20% of their time working on their ‘own’ project – something they see as an initiative that could deliver major change through the company.

Prior to this Malbon was the Executive Director of Innovation at BBH (the creative agency). Like me, he was intrigued by role of an Innovation Director. He asked a number of people with titles similar to this what it meant and to try to capture their role in a tweet-length summary. Here is what they said: 

Edward Boches (Chief Innovation Officer, Mullen)

  • Opening minds. Inspiring change. Creating unexpected connections. Dissecting cool stuff + re-applying. Sharing. Experimenting.

Saneel Radia (Head of Innovation, BBH New York)

  • Help BBH NY do what we aren't currently doing but want to. Criteria: make clients & talent happy, be credible.

Faris Yakob (Chief Innovation Officer, KBS&P)

  • Asking Why? And What If? Instead of How? + When? - Hopeful midwife to new *kinds* of ideas.

Rishadt Tobbacowla (Chief Strategy & Innovation Officer)

  • Help drive future competitive advantage. Seek fresh insightful connections.

“the community might actually catch a few fish, while they are learning to fish”

“Innovation doesn’t happen with an individual, it has to be part of an organization’s culture”

One of the most pertinent of responses in the resulting blog stream included:

“Years ago job titles had to have "digital" in them. It was someone's job to understand digital. Now it's everyone's job to understand digital, so you don't really need that prefix in a job title anymore. Same with innovation, it should be everyone's job.”  

Another said “Strongly agree. Innovation doesn't happen with an individual, it has to be part of an organization's culture. A Chief Innovation Officer’s value may not come from being a visionary seer, but from building a forward-thinking environment and identifying the people who thrive in it. It's someone who expands the organization's horizon, and guides it along the edges of what's next.”

The longest journey starts with a single step

A study by James Watkinson found that “Unlike chemistry or accounting, Innovation is a discipline and the building blocks can be learned, built, practiced and managed. Through repeated practice the discipline is built and eventually the cultural DNA of the organization comes into alignment for successful innovation. The road to building the foundation for innovation is old and time-tested. And while there are many starting points, a firm can begin the journey by putting together a group whose role will be to serve as “innovation champions.” They will help the firm shape its values and create the climate. As the process continues and matures, this group can be grown into a community of champs, mentors and coaches.

Along the way, we must give this community a common vision and a common language of innovation; provide them concepts and tools to build the processes; coach their innovation behaviours; and help them practice continuous experimentation. Although this journey may take several years, the investment can yield real benefits before all disciplines are fully developed, as the community might actually catch a few fish, while they are learning to fish.”  

Will Innovation Directors be around in 10 years?

In theory, a good Innovation Director will have worked themselves out of a job in 10 years, leaving behind an organisation that has innovation built into its culture and working practices.

One of the most pertinent of responses in Malbon’s blog stream quoted above was from a person who suggested that “In an odd way, the job of a Director of Innovation is to make their own role obsolete. To kick start a cultural change within the company/agency”.  Another went on “I'm in favour of the Chief Innovation Officer, as long as the goal of this position is to make itself obsolete.

However, not all organisations are starting at the same time, nor will bring the same focus to bear. For these reasons and since innovation will always be a key business driver, the Innovation Director that has left one company after effecting the change they sought will always be in high demand and able to find another position.

Hiring an Innovation Director – the one thing you should look for

In light of the above, it should be clear that the most important personal characteristic of an Innovation Director is not necessarily that they are the most creative person in the business. What’s important is that they have the vision and an understanding of how to create the journey for a complex organization. They must have the personal credibility and charisma to bring people from every function on that journey. Communication skills are therefore the key element - an ability to inspire people initially and keep them focused and motivated. A healthy degree of commitment and perseverance would also be high on the list.