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The Innovation Executive

It was one of those days when the atmosphere is so heavy that you can see your words hanging in the warm summer air.  The CEO fidgeted as he pondered the question that had been tossed on the table so callously.  “What are you doing about innovation?” was the offensive query whose stench was burning in his nostrils.  Breaking the uncomfortable silence, he responded, “That’s why I have added Fred Lardbottom to my management team; he is our Innovation Czar.”  In that moment, all in attendance understood the emperor had no clothes.

It was one of those days when the atmosphere is so heavy that you can see your words hanging in the warm summer air.  The CEO fidgeted as he pondered the question that had been tossed on the table so callously.  “What are you doing about innovation?” was the offensive query whose stench was burning in his nostrils.  Breaking the uncomfortable silence, he responded, “That’s why I have added Fred Lardbottom to my management team; he is our Innovation Czar.”  In that moment, all in attendance understood the emperor had no clothes.

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Unfortunately, this scenario is not far from reality in many organizations.  While innovation is a top tier issue for many executives, it does not get the attention that its apparent importance might suggest.  Many CEOs, unsure as to how to get the innovation engine firing on all cylinders, defer to other and become detached from the initiative.  This is where they first go astray.  There is nothing wrong with delegating authority to drive innovation, but the CEO must not delegate responsibility.  The CEO must be in effect the Chief Innovation Officer. 

To be successful, the CEO must establish innovation as a fundamental part of the corporation’s culture.  This starts at the very top of the organization.  This is why Executive Leadership is the first of the Five Pillars of Sustainable Innovation Culture.

Leadership is not passive.  Innovation leadership is not achieved by simply saying a few words.  The CEO can not appear to be above it all.  It is the purpose of the Chief Executive to set the direction of the organization, define the parameters of success, and monitor execution.  In this role, the CEO must always balance short term and long term objectives.  With this in mind the CEO must consider how innovation is to impact the business along the critical dimensions of people, product, position, profitability, and problems. 

The innovation vision must be clearly communicated and proper reporting systems put in place to ensure execution.  In doing so, the CEO must drive the mandate for innovation though the entire management team all the way to each individual worker such that everyone understands the corporate agenda and what is their personal contribution to the corporate goals.

What are typical behaviors seen in organizations that have strong executive leadership behind their innovation programs?  Here are a few of the key indicators that a company is serious about making innovation value driving core competence.

Investment in People
High performance innovation organizations recognize the knowledge workers need to be equipped to deliver on their innovation goals.  Organizations that are leaders in innovation practice develop their internal innovation capabilities by providing innovation best practice training.  Companies like Hewlett Packard, Samsung, and Dow have invested in training programs to help disseminate innovation expertise throughout the enterprise.  Executives must ensure that the mission of developing these fundamental skills has a defined home in the organization.

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Meaningful Recognition Program
To encourage any new behavior it is important to reward the behavior you want.  Executives must ensure that this goes beyond the occasional attaboy and that those who distinguish themselves as avatars of the innovation culture you are trying to create are publicly rewarded for their contribution.  Leggett & Platt has elevated the visibility of innovation success through their annual technology forum where they also spotlight the winner of the prestigious J. P. Leggett Innovators Award, while seeing Delphi’s Inventor’s Wall of Fame, you can’t help but feel the depth of the company’s commitment to its innovation contributors.  Still other companies tie innovation achievement to earnings or bonus programs.  What ever means is selected, it is important for innovation workers to feel that their contribution is highly valued.

Investment in Infrastructure to Support Sustainable Innovation
My father always advised me to select the right tool for the job.  This is just as true for innovation as it is for any other endeavor.  The easier you make it for your knowledge workers to adopt the disciplines of repeatable innovation, the greater your return on innovation.  This infrastructure should both support your innovation best practices though methodology support and help you leverage internal and external knowledge sources.

Clear Communication of Corporate Objectives
Mentioned earlier, this bears repeating.  All too often investment is wasted on ideas that are doomed from the start because they are not aligned with the needs of the company.  Innovation workers must understand how their role contributes to the corporate goals if they are to be able to integrate corporate strategy into their evaluation of possible innovation paths.  Recently, I was talking to some engineers at Intel.  I was singularly impressed with how every person and every level spoke about the business relevance of their work and how that tied back to innovation.  Now, that’s execution.

Promotion of the Value of Innovation
Workers need to know that their efforts have made a difference.  Managers need to know that they are meeting objectives.  Executives need to understand how innovation execution is driving corporate value.  Measure your innovation success and make the results known.  Executive must inform their workers to achieve maximal performance.  This type of communication not only inspires employees and makes them feel proud of their accomplishments, but also motivates them by making it clear that the company values results.

Pervasive Innovation
What makes Tiger Woods the best?  Practice.  Practice makes perfect, permanent, and predictable.  To build a truly sustainable innovation culture, workers must practice innovation in everything they do.  Constantly employing innovation best practices for small challenges, will prepare them to tackle the big issues.  For managers, this means they must support innovation workers in this activity and not subtly discourage the development of innovation competence by pushing employees to short circuit the solution process.  Executives must show their commitment to doing things right the first time.

As you can see, there are many ways that management can drive the growth of the sustainable culture of innovation that will put their company in the ranks of the high performance innovation companies.  Executives, starting with the CEO, must recognize that they can not be absent from the innovation program.  They must lead it.  They must make the call for a strong innovation culture and program and then follow through with monitoring execution and making sure the innovation mission is a front burner issue for all employees.

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