Being a leader of innovation in the 21st Century

You cannot just say - Be Creative.

Being a leader in the 21st century is a tough place with challenges materialising not just from competition, from the macro economy, but also from inside the organisation as we embrace the rich diversity of the modern workforce. Think about how online streaming services such as Spotify, Deezer and other music streaming services have disrupted the father disrupter CDs, or how online video streaming services have sounded the death knell to companies such as blockbusters.

Differing cultures, differing generations, different preferences and requirements requires a leader to have higher soft leadership competencies. Disciplines such as innovation are considered higher risk with greater uncertainty that require even greater awareness and expertise of such competencies.

We hear frequently about the culture adopted in companies such as Google, who promote their employees to engage in personal projects. In Google, Project Aristotle promotes innovation. It fosters teams consisting of people that have clear goals, roles and execution strategy, that want to work on the projects that they are engaged on in an environment that allows them to take risks but surrounding by a trusting culture where each team member knows that the others have their back. We see the abundance of new services released by Google as they strive to make use of the abundant big data they have in making our lives easier. Think Google Maps, and generally we think of a reliable navigation system that not only gets us to the destination but takes into account traffic conditions, and potential suggestions for stops such as fuel, cash-points, or toilets.

It is therefore becoming clear that to engage in the 4th Industrial Age, we need to embrace leadership differently. We cannot just say “Let’s think of something new” and turn on the ideas tap. Planets need to align, and generally there needs to be a following wind – as the group embrace an innovation session to release new thought, thought that will change our way of being. Sure, innovation processes can help, but even these become stale over a period of time.

We cannot just say “Let’s think of something new” and turn on the ideas tap.

Instead, we need to look deeper into the organisational construct. I have already suggested that the soft skills competence of a leader is of growing importance, but other factors are also pre-requisite in creating the space required for great innovation.

A few years ago, when building an innovation think tank based on collaboration, it really did become clear that collaboration was a thing of the future. Creating a safe place for exploration, for discussion and construction, we found that ideas were exciting and plentiful. People were engaging with ideas that interested them, they found additional motivation to build with others and play with way out  concepts. Combined with face to face engagements, we found that as we increased relationships, innovation ideas grew as people understood that they could trust others not to pinch their idea. The mantra of the business was to keep it simple, to allow fellow collaborators to engage when they wanted and with whom they wanted. There was no complexity here.

My experience here is supported by research that suggests that trust, together with simple processes (and devoid of complexity) supports a collaborative culture that can deliver results.

We are now seeing a ubiquitous change of leadership style, moving from the 80s style manager / leader, to a person that understands and promotes the idea of innovation being something that they are rather than something that they do. With simplicity comes agility, something that we see is a pre-requisite in todays service economy. As the service landscape changes, so to could a strategic intent of an organisation.

Think re-invention, think about the change in IBM, the ‘undisputed’ king of personal computers in the 1980s until Apple and Microsoft entered the market. IBM abandoned its core business of supplying low margin computer hardware, and re-energised itself into being recognised for IT expertise and computing service to enterprise and business clients. Perhaps this change could be argued to be not as nimble as perhaps we could experience now, but still it allowed IBM to still exist and not become a brand of yesteryear.

As technology advances, so too does that capability in delivering business value. I remember in the 90s carrying a ‘portable’ mobile phone for my boss. He was one of the lucky ones that could afford one of these suitcases. My first mobile came a year later as I had a mobile handset installed in my car and with it came minute billing and coverage challenges that in hindsight probably suggested that the mobile for my use then was a bit too early and perhaps the cost to benefit ratio was not right. Compare this to now, where the modern mobile has more computing power than NASA had in 1969 and that this mobile device gives me access to what is now considered to a pre-requisite of communication in modern business. At some point, a tipping point occurred that reversed the cost to benefit ratio. Just as with mobile phones, a modern leader (or CIO) needs to have an understanding of what technology is relevant to their business and what time they need to invest in this relevant technology. A modern example is the fast acceleration of the use of cloud computing and storage. Network speed is now at a level where computing servers no longer need to be physically located in an expensive air conditioned room, but instead ‘hosted’ on a server farm with service contracts protecting its up-time and repair. This is not affordable to all businesses but the pricing structure being offered certainly makes it attractive to only but a few. Relevant technology therefore is crucial in applying growth to the innovation curve.

With growth in technical capability, we see an increase in virtual team working that can take advantage of these advancements. No longer do we need to ‘travel’ to get onto a video conference – we can simply fire up a video conference app on our mobile and engage. But with this increase in virtual team working, we see a decrease in engagement. Earlier, I suggested that a key to success in innovation is engagement and collaboration and this still stands. With this thought, comes the need to create simple rules and understandings, to build time for face to face engagements to complement virtual and to ensure that communications are clear, concise and understood. Clarity, not simply by sending an email, but by a leader spending time, and working hard to listen to and understand their team.

So, in summary, as we march forward with the increasing volatility and uncertainty that the modern business space creates, I suggest that the modern leader needs to embrace

  • Trust and Collaboration
  • Simplicity and eliminate complex processes
  • Technology that is relevant to their required outcome considering the cost to benefit ratio.
  • Agility within their organisation
  • Virtual teams and what is required of them as leader to promote a collaborative and engaging team.

It is not easy – but as Apple famously said in one of their advertising campaigns “Think Different”