Are you innovating or imitating?

One of the words dominating almost every C-Suite at the moment is “innovation”. While innovation has been around ever since people tried to find a better, smarter, easier, faster, cheaper way of doing things, the pressure to innovate faster, and on a much larger scale, has increased exponentially.

Rapid and significant innovation is being required in every industry and sector. No-one has been left untouched. If you think you can continue business as usual without innovating, you’re making “da beeg mistake”! The mantra has moved from “Adapt or die”, to “Innovate or die”.

Innovation has become a critical imperative in the manufacturing industry, in mining, in healthcare, publishing, power supply, water supply, retail, you name it …

There are a couple of misperceptions about innovation. Some companies think that innovation is about doing more with fewer people. While one cannot dismiss the fact that innovation will make some jobs redundant (just look at what robotics and machines are doing that people used to do), that’s a simplistic view of innovation. Certainly, some jobs will be taken over by robots, but then new jobs will be created that will be performed by people needing to support, manage and develop those robots.

Yet other companies think that innovation is all about technology. Again, there are unprecedented developments taking place in the field of technology and these will continue and increase. Remember when, a few years ago, we were told that the average small motor car contained more technology than NASA had available when working on the lunar landings in the late 60s and early 70s? Well, now the average mobile phone that people carry in their hands has more technology than the lunar landing programme’s technology. But, while technology will drive a lot of innovation, there’s a lot more to innovation.

Executives scrambling to address innovation in their companies are looking to their people to come up with new products, new ways of doing things, new ways of selling these new products, and so on.

The question is: who, exactly, should you be looking to in your company to innovate? Mmmmm … good question!

Here are a few thoughts to help you with innovating and reinventing your company.

1. Don’t necessarily look to your top performers to lead your innovation

You would probably think that your high achievers are an obvious place to start looking for innovative ideas. That’s however not necessarily the case.

Innovation requires risk taking. It requires you to try something that might not – and very often – does not work. High achievers simply don’t like taking those kinds of risks, because failing will affect their performance appraisals and make them look bad. High achievers want to achieve, not risk failure. And high achievers want to be seen achieving, not seen failing. While the cliché says, “Fail fast and fail forward”, this however requires, courage, humility and vulnerability, all qualities that high achievers typically don’t demonstrate. So – generally speaking because there always exceptions – if you think your high achievers are the people who will introduce innovation, forget it.

In many cases, it’s your lazy people that innovate. Why? Simple. They always look for faster, easier, quicker ways to do things. Another bunch that innovates – if given the chance – is your younger, or new, employees. Why? They haven’t been brainwashed by “company think” to do things “the way they’re don here”. So it may be worth changing your view of who could innovate in your company.

2. Give you Millennials a chance to show what they can do

Millennials are rated as the highest maintenance workforce the world has ever known. They continually want and need affirmation, praise, encouragement and support. They want to do things their own way. They want to be the boss after the second month. You have probably been tempted to avoid hiring them and/or try to work them out of the organisation because they’re. Just. So. Much. Effort.

But they are the ones who are going to come up with the innovative ideas – ideas that are going to give you the heebies …

So look after your Millennials and create an environment and culture that makes it easy for them to grow, experiment and innovate. If you’re smart and brave enough to give them enough space to explore new options, they may well save your company from extinction. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re too smart or too successful to fail. You won’t be the first smart or successful company to get taken out by some seemingly insignificant newcomer.

The trick is to give your Millennials the opportunity to innovate, then use your experience and judgement to ensure that things work out just fine not to kill their ideas. Bearing in mind that diamonds don’t come out of the ground cut and polished, use your experience and expertise to do a bit of cutting and polishing of the possibly rough ideas that are presented to you.

3. Don’t stop innovating

Remember the days when Nokia phones ruled the mobile phone world? If not, you’re probably a little too young! Yes, there was a time when everybody who was anybody just HAD to have a Nokia phone. Then Blackberry arrived … and Nokia handsets were ditched in favour of Blackberrys, which were ditched in favour of Apple phones, which are being ditched in favour of the Samsung Galaxy.

But back to Nokia. If ever there were an award for a company that reinvented itself back in the day, Nokia should have won hands down. A Finnish company, Nokia started out life as a paper manufacturer and migrated to manufacturing mobile phones, but somewhere along the way, stopped innovating.

There is no destination in business any more. You will never “arrive”. There will always be a need to innovate, improve and reinvent. That’s the new normal. Companies that think they’re doing enough to hold their own against all comers will get taken out at the knees. We’ve seen how the hotel industry has been turned on its head by people opening up their homes to offer accommodation via Airbnb. We’ve seen how you can run an international transport company (Uber) without owning one vehicle.

We’re now seeing the major banks face a major challenge from digital banks who will have no branch infrastructure to maintain and will be able to offer cut rate fees. Bitcoin and other crypto currencies are just the start of the major disruptions that the financial sector will experience.

4. Innovation means you must be first

If you innovate, you implement an idea no-one else has implemented yet. If you see that your competition has innovated and introduced something new, and you seek to match them to keep up with them, you haven’t innovated, you’ve simply imitated. You’ve heard the saying, “Beware of imitations”. That’s how people will respond to your imitation.

With innovation, first-mover advantage is critical. There’s no second place awarded in the innovation race. You’re either the innovator or the imitator. Your choice …

Innovating therefore means you have to be prepared to try things that might seem crazy. In 1932, Frank Whittle announced to the world that he had designed a jet engine for planes. Nobody believed him because it had never been done before. After all, planes flew by means of propellers, so his invention was dismissed as crazy. We all know what engines passenger planes use today …

Another quality required to innovate at speed is agility, which we will discuss next time.

Alan Hosking is the publisher of HR Future magazine, @HRFuturemag, and has been helping leaders, people and companies prepare for the Future of Work for the past 18 years.

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