How to set a Leadership Agenda for Innovation

Article 2 - 1 May 2013A good plan requires a rigorous thinking process and a significant base of insights into customer needs, company capabilities, and changes in the competitive landscape. The organization also needs time to reflect and absorb the opportunities and options.

These steps can ease the process:

1. Start with the customers

Start the process by creating a good base of insights into customer needs and contextual changes and forces that might influence your industry in the future. It can be extremely rewarding for top managers to spend time on understanding their customer’s daily life and to use that to identify discontinuities and anticipated changes from today’s world. Many times we have found that the discussions in a management group becomes much more inspiring and valuable when you place your customers’ everyday life at the center of the discussion. This allows you to challenge the basic assumptions in your industry and open discussions about entirely new business opportunities.

2. Detect patterns and think like a good journalist

Mapping future needs and opportunities can make you feel like a kid in a candy store: There’s so much to choose from and everything looks delicious. It’s tempting to choose a little of each. Because a good leadership agenda is about prioritizing and choosing your future it requires bold choices. The trick is to detect patterns in the data and find the vectors that best align with your company’s capabilities and culture. The hard part is to choose a direction and deselect all the other options that look so tempting. In most cases the pattern recognition process will reveal some very clear options and some surprisingly simple answers on where the future value lies. A good rule is to think like a journalist who is writing a headline for his or her story. There can only be one headline and you’d better make sure you put the most important stuff up front.

3. Involve your organization—but only when you’re ready

An African proverb wisely states: “If you want to go fast, you can always walk alone, if you want to go far, walk together.” Creating an innovation agenda requires both walking fast and walking far. In the beginning you need to walk fast. That’s when you create insights and set the intent. If you involve too many people in the discovery process you risk compromising and allowing corporate politics to destroy what may be some very clear thinking. It is best when the CEO selects a small group of the best thinkers to lay the groundwork and help set the intent. Once that’s done you need to walk far. This is the phase where the intent in translated into challenges and projects in the organization. The task of top management here is to change the traditional downward communication style to an upward communication stream of new ideas coming from the entire organization.

4. Work fast and be determined about implementation

The full pay off from a new innovation agenda will come when you implement changes swiftly and firmly. Very often the new agenda will have rather big consequences for how you prioritize R&D investments, how you organize innovation projects, what capabilities you need to build, and how you reward entrepreneurs inside your organization. These changes have to be mapped before you launch the intent for a broader audience and should be part of the message itself. If possible make the changes as simple and understandable as possible. Prioritize interventions that cut complexity and free cash—for example, cut away investments that aren’t aligned with the intent or remove procedures that slow your time to market. Implementing the innovation agenda should feel liberating and not like somebody is occupying your company.

5. Learn from the politicians—tell the story again, again and again

Most people will meet a new innovation agenda with a good deal of skepticism—with good reason. They need to see your commitment in action. But they also have to feel that this not just another weird campaign that will blow over in two weeks time. The best way to convince people about the seriousness of your intention is to be consistent and determined. Politicians know they can win voters by repeating their message again and again. You need to practice your inner politician and repeat the story again and again.

An effective way to show strong leadership is to commit to a big idea on why, how, and where the company is expected to develop and grow.

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