Innovators lead from the edge

It’s not easy at the top. Across the world, leaders are in a quandary. Boards and shareholders increasingly demand tangible evidence of innovation, yet few organisations successfully incorporate it into their business approach, letalone their culture. Reports on the megatrends reshaping the operating environment suggest the future of work will be radically different, from the skills in demand to the fragmented, guerilla nature of competition. What works in this future scenario works for innovation. Yet embracing change is seen as highly risky.

The latest Forbes magazine survey of the world’s most innovative companies, a joint project with researchers Hal Gregersen and Jeff Dyer, says innovative companies create and sustain an edge by focusing on the three Ps. “How well companies leverage people, process, and philosophies differentiates the best in class from the next in class when it comes to keeping innovation alive and delivering an innovation premium year after year,” they say. “On the people front, the behaviour of leaders matters – big time.”

The researchers found innovative leaders spent approximately 31 per cent of their time actively engaged in innovation-centered activities compared with only 15 per cent by leaders of less innovative companies. Doubling the time a senior leader personally invests in getting new ideas typically delivers significant returns. Says Fabrizio Freda, CEO of Estee Lauder, which was ranked 23 in this year’s survey: “I strongly believe in the power of listening” to help connect the dots. “The way my thinking and creativity goes is listening, connecting and creating.”

This year’s survey reemphasised the 2011 findings about the importance of discovery skills – questioning, observing, networking, experimenting, and sense-making – in driving innovation. Such leaders not only practise such skills themselves; they cultivate and demand them of others. “Putting innovators at high levels is not enough to create and sustain an innovation premium,” Gregersen and Dyer say. “Successful leaders personally understand how innovation happens and they try to imprint their behaviors as processes and philosophies within their organisation.”

Such leaders include Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce.com (ranked 1 in the survey) and Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon (3), who surround themselves with people who bring drive, different perspectives and a willingness to challenge the status quo. For most organisations, though, innovation remains far outside business as usual, with leaders shying away from hiring people with the non-traditional, knowledge-based, transdisciplinary skills needed to drive transformation and identify emerging opportunities.

It’s a frustrating dilemma for those trying to market such skills. In a thoughtful post about his own journey, researcher and designer Adam Richardson outlined some of the challenges of a hybrid career. “Accumulating new and unconventional expertise can pose problems,” he says. “I realised this when looking for a new job after graduate school. People didn’t know what to do with me; they either wanted a designer or a researcher. They weren’t ready for someone who was a 50/50 mix. The reality then — and today — is that companies want to know what ‘hook’ to hang you on.”

Yet hybrid skills and adaptive mindsets are exactly what organisations – especially large ones – say they need. Musing about the challenge of transformation, GE’s chief marketing officer, Beth Comstock, says “in a big company, you never feel you’re fast enough.” Within GE (ranked 90 in the Forbes survey), “our traditional teams are too slow. We’re not innovating fast enough. We need to systematise change.”

Richardson’s post elicited a range of responses from people with similar stories. In the end, while he chose to focus on research at the expense of user design, he still sees value in his career choices. “It’s these kinds of journeys that are the most personally rewarding but are also the most valuable to employers, even if they don’t know it at first,” he says. “The complex, ambiguous problems that companies face today are rarely solved by deep expertise in one area; they require collaboration across disciplines and departments, and connecting far-flung dots of insights and approaches. People with hybrid backgrounds are used to being translators across disciplines and looking at problems from unconventional perspectives, making them well-suited to these challenges.”

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