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INNOVATE

3 Secrets of Innovation That Everyone Misses

Are you encouraging diversity, grooming inclusive leaders, listening to customers? Here are three simple ways to encourage innovation.
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If you're reading Inc., you're probably an innovator or part of an innovative start-up business or enterprise.

Innovation is your focus. And you are probably well aware of the avalanche of literature on drivers of innovation, ways to innovate, and innovative strategies.

There are equally dozens and dozens of companies advising on innovation, from Ideo to BCG and everyone in between.

But if you're reading Inc., you may not be in the position to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to hire a top innovation consulting firm. You're probably too busy to read all 500,000 articles out there on the subject.

It is also likely that you already know a thing or two about how to do it.

So let me make it easy: No matter whom you’re working with, no matter what you're reading, there's something I'm pretty sure you’re missing!

Here are three innovation drivers that many businesses overlook:

Forget fit. Hire opposites.

OK, you might have already read something about this one. James Surowiecki, Franz Johansen, Malcolm Gladwell, and many others have written about the power of diversity to drive innovation. Take it seriously. Every company, large or small, struggles to find the right fit when hiring. We of course want to work with people who are like us, and in small companies it is especially critical that people work well together. It is important that there be a kind of connection that makes it fun and rewarding for everyone. But in the process of trying to find the right "fit," many of us wind up losing an essential ingredient for innovation: diversity.

Diversity can mean many things to many people, but there is overwhelming evidence that having inherently diverse individuals, women, people of color, gays and lesbians, younger and older workers, creates the conflict of ideas and experience that is essential to innovation. As Surowiecki of The New Yorker famously argued, diverse teams get better outcomes to almost any problem. Just a diversity of thought or personal styles isn't enough. In other words, hiring an introvert instead of an extrovert doesn't really make a big difference in terms of innovation potential. Hiring someone from another culture, gender, or generation does. That's because the unique life experience that someone diverse brings leads him or her to understand the world and customers differently. So in your next interview process when the discussion of "fit" inevitably arises, be sure you're focused on the right things and that you're not eliminating critical perspective for personal reasons.

Don't put Jack Welch in a Zuckerberg world.

Many of the experienced leaders across industry and companies are operating with sadly outdated skill sets. U.S. companies spend nearly $14 billion a year on leadership development, according to a Bersin by Deloitte study. Yet few leaders are really prepared to lead for innovation. When I was at the Center for Talent Innovation, we found that 63 percent of leaders described their own leadership styles as either "old school hierarchical" or "command and control." Keep in mind these were leaders rating themselves. They were probably being kind! Very few leaders today even understand or appreciate the value of an inclusive, open leadership style that’s essential for innovation. The reality is that many leadership programs, including the major MBA programs, many of the top training companies, and the internal learning functions in many companies, are training delegators and commanders, not listeners and facilitators.

I have worked with dozens of companies that have committed publicly to innovation. They've set it as a top priority. Yet they are totally unprepared organizationally to make good on that because their leaders don't know how. As long as the command and control leaders are getting the promotions, the more inclusive leaders--the ones who actually know how to foster innovative teams--will not rise.

To deliver on innovation as a fundamental part of how you operate, you must have leaders who know how to foster and support creative thinking, who enable and support the right kind of risk taking, who understand the value of ideas even if they are not their own or they can’t personally relate to them. Finally, they need to know how to get out of the way and let their teams innovate.

This brings me to the third point.

Shut up and listen.

In BCG's 2013 study of the most innovative companies, the authors conclude: "Strong innovators listen to customers. The views of key customers play a significant role in the innovation and new-product programs of 73 percent of strong innovators, compared with only 42 percent of weaker companies and 56 percent overall."

Although this may seem incredibly obvious, it's not. Many companies, especially larger, more hierarchical organizations, are simply not set up to hear the voice of the customer. In one large health care company I advised last year, entire businesses were still taking orders by fax. The reason? They claimed the customer had never asked them to change it. Really?! On closer inspection, it seemed customers had asked. They had asked their reps, who had in turn tried to pass the message up the chain. But the reps weren't heard. The status quo continued.

There are many ways to hear the customer. Clearly, outreach, focus groups, and market research all matter. But some of the best customer insights are standing right in front of you, because your employees often know what customers want. Unfortunately (see point above), in a hierarchy-driven, Jack Welch management world, it's very hard to hear the customer because you're not hearing your employees.

Innovation is hard. It takes relentless focus, openness, and sometimes a little luck. But sometimes even simple solutions can yield dividends. Whatever the investment, there's nothing but benefit to be gained.




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