Supporting Innovation

 “Innovation— any new idea—by definition will not be accepted at first. It takes repeated attempts, endless demonstrations, monotonous rehearsals before innovation can be accepted and internalized by an organization. This requires courageous patience.” — Warren Bennis http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/citycar-hiriko-fold-car-future/story?id=15472566#

For the video: http://www.necn.com/02/24/12/A-fuel-efficient-fold-up-car/landing_scitech.html?blockID=657652&feedID=4213

I’m reading a new book this week, The Wide Lens: A New Strategy For Innovation, by Ron Adner. As I am reading I thought of the above article and video I saw a while ago on the new Hiriko, a fold up car.  Right about now you’re probably asking yourself “what does this have to do with leadership?” I think that no matter what type of business you are in, as a leader you need to be thinking about innovation. Whether it’s the next new item you put on your fast food menu, the newest software product, or the most fuel-efficient car design, all of these innovations have something in common, the need for support of the innovation by their surrounding ecosystems. Whether it’s the baker of the buns for the burger being able to accommodate the new square 10 inch bun requirement, the software sales partners building the new skills required to set up and install the software, or the need to have recharge stations installed in parking curbs for the electric car.  Leadership is about makings sure that all of the ecosystems are thought about and in place to sustain the success of these new innovations.

In the book, there is a story about Michelin’s invention of the “drive flat tire.” When I read this I thought “wow” I’ve got to get those tires, but then as I read on I realized that the problem with them was they were really expensive, there were no tire repair shops that had the needed equipment to repair them when I had driven my 50 miles on the flat (it never is really not flat you can just continue to drive on it for a while), and that it was unlikely that either of these things would change in the near future.  But as I continued to read, I realized that there were several peripheral inventions developed at the same time that I am already taking advantage of in my Honda Insight. One of these is the system that tells me my tires are running low on air. I won’t spoil the rest of the book for you, but you get the picture.

As I continue to read the book, it has started to dawn on me that as a leader it is not enough for me to encourage innovation. I must also be aware that support for that innovation needs to be a part of “selling the idea” to the executives.  While this at first might seem daunting, it is absolutely necessary. I would go on to claim that it is just as required as understanding the market segment for the product and the pricing models. If you don’t have a bun big enough to fit your new burger, then you’re never going to get it into your customer’s hands. Well, let me rephrase that, you might just literally get it into their hands, but you’re certainly not going to be able to claim a premium price for it unless you make it a protein burger and wrap it only in lettuce. The same is true if you can’t sell your software because no one can support it or your new car is just left to languish by the side of the road when the battery runs out of juice. This last assumes that you don’t also invent a really long extension cord that will stretch to the nearest Costco that has an electric car plug-in station.

I am not recommending that you squash your innovators by burdening them with thinking through all of these details. I am, however, taking the position that we as leaders must think ahead and act in concert with our innovators. We must support them, build a creative environment for them, and nurture their inventive ideas. Then, when we take the best of those ideas and sell them to the executives who need to buy in and fund the efforts, it is our job as leaders to also think through the ecosystem support that will be required to see a successful launch in the market.

There are a lot of books about innovation, but I highly recommend this one to help you build your thoughts about what we each can do as leaders to support the innovation that is definitely required in this economy to sustain our long-term business growth. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the book and the ecosystems that you need to support innovations for your business. Just remember, like Warren Bennis has said, this requires “courageous patience.”

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