Friday, May 19, 2006

Leaders and Innovation

I am at the Bangalore Airport, headed back home to Noida, my last 3 days having been spent with Tom Koulopoulos, thought leader in the area of innovation and author of Smartsourcing ( http://tlb.typepad.com/ www.smartsourcingbook.com) .

The discussions have triggered a gamut of ideas and thoughts, some have substantiated some of my thinking and perspective and others as brand new points of view.

As Tom says, The innovation concept is not new, it has probably been driving thinking and thinkers for ages - prehistoric humans discovered fire, which was not an 'innovation' per se, but several subsequent generations of humans have found many innovative used of fire. From keeping the beasts away, survival, to smelting iron, industrial progress, to pyrotechnics for pure pleasure!

Leaders need to view innovation from the same perspective. i.e does the leader, and hence the organization, pursue innovation for 'survival', or for 'progress'i.e. does it drive productivity or organizational growth; or is it for pure entertainment - the latest buzzword and everyone is talking about and oh, it is a good thing to tell our clients we do it, a great marketing tool.
While the value of innovation as a marketing value creator is no doubt strong, innovation can pay much larger dividends if practiced.

But is practicing innovation and actually 'innovating' as easy paying grand tributes to it being so critical and putting it on a mission statement and preparing attractive slideware or grand plans to innovate?

Definately not!

And here is where leadership and leaders comes in. The guts to dedicate their best people, some could be top revenue generators, to pursue the innovation agenda, to build a culture of innovation, to personally track and measure it, to invest in tools technologies partnerships, to be ready for failures, and disappointments. And to sustain all of the above.

Across organizations innovations and creative ideas get lost in the day to day hustle of work and deliverables, and several others are crushed at the alter of 'do what is required to be done and do not waste time'.

While we cannot give everyone a free reign to experiment with and at all stages of day to day, and there is no magic formula whereby the CIO( Chief Innovator Officer) says 'go forth and innovate' and several innovations appear; there are simpler ways of encouraging and kindling creative solutions leading to innovative solutions leading to innovation.

And another important point, inspired by Tom and which he brings out very lucidly, is the dangers of 'Innovating for Innvation's sake'. Innovations that do not benefit the society at large, or improve the lives of people, improve productivity, comfort, or are not affordable or manufacturable at large scales, are of no use.

Similarly, for organizations, innovations, including patents or trademarked methodologies etc, that really do not bring about any benefits of increased productivity or reduced costs that can be passed to the clients of the organization are of no use. Innovation for the fun of it could be a good distraction to keep 'idle minds' from not turning into 'devil's workshops', but would be just that.

Leaders need to be careful that they do not overdo the innovation bit and go overboard seeking innovation in everything the organization does.

But that is same in all areas - underinvestment or overinvestment, both are dangerous. While The former carries with it risks of never reaching critical mass, the latter leads to increased expectations, frustration of not seeing returns and ultimately scrapping the initiative itself. The same risk, of course, is in the case of underinvestment - no returns lead to scrapping the initiative all together.

The leader, hence, has the unenviable task of first investing, then assessing if this is over or underinvestment, and is this timely, and balancing the returns.

My flight has been called, and i risk being left behind, so this is all for now..

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