Quite frankly, innovation is not for everyone

“That is quite a bold statement to make. Does this mean that innovation is only for a chosen, privileged few?” Prasna** jumped right in, even before I could complete the sentence.

” No Prasna. I am conscious that this statement might sound discouraging, perhaps even elitist.  I do not mean it to be.”

“Then why do you say that?”

Would you agree if I say the Olympic Gold is for everyone but not everyone can get it? Obviously, you would.

It is the same with Innovation.

Let us get into some definitions first. Of all the definitions, I like Peter Drucker’s definition of Innovation the best.

“Innovation: Change that creates a new dimension of performance.”

Most of us would immediately say “Nano” and “Reliance Mobile (phone call at the cost of a postcard) fit this definition.I would add Aravind Eye hospitals from Madurai to the list.

There could be many other examples which could fit the definition.

However, if you think a little, all  these happened because the people who dreamt about these, did not worry whether such a thing is possible or how much it would cost or what it would take to make this happen. They  displayed much passion and even a tinge of ‘madness’ when they first announced their ideas to the world.
I am sure there were many nay-sayers, skeptics and non-believers in all three organisations. Impossible dreams need unusual ways to achieve them. The seed for a break-through innovation is an impossible challenge.
I often wonder about game-changer innovations, which create a new dimension of performance.
What could have been the behind-the-scenes-story?
I have only read published material on these cases. It was clear to me that. the leaders were leading from the front in all the cases.
Once I started studying other successful companies that created a new dimension of performance, I could see a different kind of leadership in action.
Here is a summary of what made these leaders and their innovations succeed.
Leaders must constantly show a leap of faith when it comes to ‘Innovations that create a new dimension of performance.’
There is no failure; there are only  temporary setbacks.
The role of experts is to find solutions, not come up with reasons why something is not possible. The leaders had no use for such experts.
Leaders don’t have all the answers. Their job is to make way for the people with the ideas, so they can succeed.
Leaders must ensure there is no compromise to the original concept.
Leaders must protect not just the idea, but the creative people who will make it happen; keep the non-believers away.
Leaders must not only cut out layers of bureaucracy; they must also ensure that the innovation team gets the best support.
Leaders must be willing to invest time with the team. They must stay involved beyond regular review meetings.
Leaders must be ready to follow.
Leaders must learn to let go and trust their people.

Any leader who shows these qualities belongs to a special breed. He is more an exception than the rule.

I might give an impression that only leaders innovate and others do not. It might go against the concept of democratising innovation which is getting more and more acceptance.

Apparently Dhirubhai Ambani had once said “Every body has a right to improve the company.”

It stands to logic that every employee has a right to suggest innovations for the business. The truth however is the employees will not do that unless they have a culture that accepts their suggestions (example: the Toyota System or the 3M culture). Note that I talk about a culture that accepts their suggestions and not a suggestion system.

However, it is still the responsibility of the leadership to demonstrate  that their interest in innovation is not mere lip-service. They are not talking about innovation because it is the right subject to talk about. Or because it is fashionable to do so.

Ram Charan explains culture as ‘where employees don’t need permission to do the right things.’ When an employee does not have to seek anyone’s permission to innovate, it means the leadership there is doing something right.

“What you mean is that not every one can innovate, as much as not every one can get an Olympic Gold. Is that right?”


Picture by Copper Gecko available under a Creative Commons Attribution- licensed for commercial use.
**Prasna Rao is an unusual friend. He appears every time I start writing something. He is almost always there when I am writing my blog. He asks questions that are razor sharp and often makes me uncomfortable. He is relentless till I answer his questions in simple, clear terms. You might find that he is most of the times asking questions that you want to. Therefore he is on your side, while he is putting me in the dock. I call him my Uninvited Coach

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