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  • Lou Killeffer

ABCs of Innovation: C is for Champion

One of the biggest issues facing innovation today isn’t the quality of the ideas but rather the ability to steward those ideas through the organization so that they may see the light of the day. Much less enter the marketplace with something like the promise they originally started with.

As obvious as it sounds, what too often separates innovation success from failure are the

people involved; particularly the vision, drive, and credibility of the leader who supporters and

sceptics alike see as exemplifying the merits of the undertaking.

This is because for most of us, getting significant things done at work, particularly something new, is hard. And the bigger the enterprise the harder it becomes. As previously noted a lot of this comes down to how comfortable management is with risk. (Please see ABCs of Innovation: R is for Risk) And may be why entrepreneurs and smaller companies account for so much groundbreaking innovation.

It seems smaller, newer organizations are more willing to take more risks. I don’t know that they succeed more often but they account for more at bats and take bigger swings when they’re at the plate. Big companies have enormous advantages in size and scale that small firms can only dream about, but their appetite for risk isn’t one of them. Indeed, for big companies risk just tastes different.

When this dynamic takes root at large organizations it exerts a pernicious influence on key

executives, their direct reports, teams and colleagues, with far-reaching implications for employees on the factory floor and in the field. Like some other poisons this one’s largely odorless and colorless and can thrive without any obvious indication that anything’s amiss.

Simple operations can be complex within a large corporation, and innovation is equally complex and a lot messier. If the executive team feel somehow constrained in their ambitions they can’t help but convey it. The shadow of such self-limiting beliefs undermine

operations and cripple any hope of innovation as everyone keeps their head down, sticks to their knitting, and just lets things be.

“That can’t happen here; who are we kidding? Why should I bother? I’ve got enough on my plate as it is: and a hard-enough hill to climb to my bonus already…”

The best advocate, by far, for innovation is obviously the CEO

Others within the C-Suite can fill the role almost as well but it must be someone focused on the big questions regarding the company’s future. Someone who sees the time and effort required to always look ahead as a necessary investment in the nature of the business. Someone who sees innovation not as a project with a due date from the skunk works but as a constant commitment and vital effort to improve and re-invent the company.

Such leadership requires many gifts, including passion, persistence, and persuasiveness.

Political capital of course is key, and charisma helps as well. People want to believe and we all take our cues, consciously and subconsciously, from the top. Such signals are most important when we're unsure about the issue at hand and therefore, most susceptible to considering the pros and cons.

Everyone wants more information and when we agree, when we buy-in, we do so with both our head and our heart. When you don’t have both, it’s really no sale. Particularly as the natural force in large corporations is to play it safe and revert to the norm. When there’s no heart for something new inside the company it’ll never see the outside either. Indeed, why should it?

When Steve Jobs famously said, “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower”, he was describing the differences between companies. But the clarity of his insight is even more true of business men and women; reflecting his profound preference for executives with imagination, determination, creativity, and courage.

These are the champions.

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