Leading innovation – in yourself, and in your business

Innovation is one those magic qualities that everyone wants to see in action. The ability to create something new, to provide a product, service, or approach that pushes you beyond what your competitors are achieving.

We sometimes mystify innovation, treating it as a special quality that certain people have just by their nature. And if that were really the case then all an organization’s leaders could do to nurture innovation would be to track down these innovators and lure them in with pay and conditions. But those who lead in the field of business innovation are increasingly realizing that this isn’t the case. Innovation and creativity are things that we can develop, as individuals and organizations. So how do we go about it?

Developing your innovative side

Whether as a leader or as a creator, you want to be able to innovate. It won’t just allow you to achieve more, it will allow you to inspire others in your organization.

Meta-analysis of studies on innovation, such as Herman Brandstätter’s ‘Personality aspects of entrepreneurship’, show that persistence is important in innovation. If you want to create new approaches then you have to be ready to fail. Not every new idea will be a success, and if you can’t accept your failures, move on and try something new, then you’ll never find the next big thing.

You need to be willing to seize opportunities. There may be a pre-wired tendency for some people to spot patterns and opportunities, but no opportunities matter if you aren’t ready to act on them.

And though it takes some of the romance out of innovation, most of the leading innovators are already experts in their field. They aren’t the high school dropouts of entrepreneurial fantasies, but people who understand their field thoroughly and as a result can spot the opportunities. Take the time to read around the area you work in, and never stop learning.

Building an innovative organization

Whether you’re looking to lead innovation across a whole organization or just within one team, the same principles apply.

Your innovators need to be as persistent as you. They won’t do that if you don’t give them the freedom to try new things, and for those to fail. This isn’t to say that you just sit back and say ‘anything goes’, but that you don’t jump on every setback with both feet.

Encourage people to connect with each other, whether it’s discussing ideas with others in the team, connecting with other departments to find new ways of working, or establishing links with other people in your industry who inspire them. This last point is particularly important – you need to consider outside ideas, and the best ones will come from building strong relationships.

Make use of end-user innovation. As Eric von Hippel pointed out in Sources of Innovation, people use products and services in ways that the providers could never predict. Those users are a huge pool of innovative ideas just waiting for you to dip in. Ask your customers how they use your product or service. Observe them using it. Dig around on the internet and find their unique or perhaps odd ideas. Their innovations may lead you to even more.