Tony Arnold: Innovation requires a plan to make a difference

Tony Arnold, Founder and Principal, Upfront Management

Organizations often must overcome obstacles in order to grow through the process of innovation. The ability to do this effectively is vital to any organization’s future. But in order to get the most out of innovation, it is important to realize how it happens and how much time leadership needs to spend reviewing the pipeline and the process of innovation. You need to ensure that this process is well-defined, that it is monitored frequently and that success is measured by results.

Here are six key things you need to keep in mind if you truly want to be an innovative company:

1) Set the tone at the top

2) Define the vision and strategy

3) Establish and engage in the innovation process

4) Clarify accountabilities

5) Seek out collaborations

6) Monitor success

Initially, leaders often mistake problem solving for innovation. Problem solving is absolutely necessary as it attempts to fix what is broken and return things to the expected state. It is vital to the day-to-day operations of any good company, but alone, it will not lead to innovation. Innovation can’t just be the result of fixing a problem.

Companies who are successful innovators generally have a few things in common. First, their leaders are open to seeking out new ideas, they look to take value from the knowledge gained when mistakes are made and they are willing to actively promote the exploration of new paradigms. Additionally, these leaders will create a companywide culture to encourage true innovation and an appropriate accountability system to nurture this culture because they view innovation as an all-encompassing process, not just a role for R&D or marketing. Next, they employ a systematic evaluation and review process to set funding priorities. Finally, these companies possess the willingness to seek out collaborations when necessary.

Innovation can take several different forms. Each generally follow similar creative steps, including defining the desired outcome, conducting a gap analysis, defining a solution and developing the solution. Breaking down existing paradigms, seeking out new ideas and considering the possibilities can be challenging.  Some companies have a robust system to manage this creativity productively, while others have been less successful at innovation, despite their efforts. In both instances, companies often elect to utilize a third party to contribute, challenge, lead or facilitate the creative process.

While creativity is important to innovating, implementation and adoption of the idea are equally as relevant. Without adoption, the innovation is only a good idea which fails to deliver tangible results to the organization or make a difference to customers. Highly effective organizations assign project leaders to lead a collaborative, team-based effort and are held accountable for the process, timelines, budgets and results. These individuals may or may not be experts in the area of question. But they should possess the skills to effectively manage the project.

In certain instances, companies may have the ability to innovate solely within their organization, while others may need to access one or more technologies to enable delivery on the stated goals. The rapid introduction of new technology affords many opportunities for companies to enhance their innovation and product development process.

Successful collaboration starts with having the right mindset and understanding of what the desired outcome looks like and value that can be created for the parties involved. Some pitfalls often encountered include failure to value the other parties’ input, failure to share information, the NIH (Not Invented Here) syndrome, win/lose negotiating strategy, unwillingness to share value, ego, competitiveness, unrealistic contractual terms or deal structure, and not fully enabling the negotiating person or team.

Some individuals are quite capable or experienced in establishing collaborations, while others consistently confront challenges. Marketing your organization’s success as a collaborator against your competition can be a useful exercise. When effectively utilized, collaboration can spread risk and cost, but more importantly may lead to breakthrough innovations which ultimately redefine markets and create opportunities for growth.

Achieving growth through innovation requires leaders to gain alignment, commitment and buy-in across an organization to enable the organization to achieve its vision. Taking an active role and interest in the process, providing resources, supplementing skills where needed and seeking out collaborations to enable success will help innovation flourish.

Tony Arnold is founder and principal of Upfront Management, a St. Louis-based management and executive consulting firm. Utilizing C-suite experience as a CEO and executive experience in early-stage start-up and Fortune 100 companies, he brings unique skills, insights and perspective to enable clients to improve business performance. Arnold can be reached at (314) 825-9525 or [email protected]