Ever-evolving technologies are rapidly reshaping customer behaviors, shortening product life cycles, increasing the competition exponentially, and forcing companies to move faster and reinvent themselves to be able to compete and survive in the market. A new or significantly improved product or process, commonly known as innovation, is arguably one of the most important sources of sustainable competitive advantage in our intensively competitive environment. It has been extensively documented that innovation leads to improvements that allow companies to grow faster, become more competitive, achieve higher performance and increase profits at a higher percentage than non-innovators.
In my role as the driver of the innovation agenda for a high-performance marketing organization, I’ve realized that driving sustained innovation is imperative. Every person across our organization needs to recognize that their problem-solving talents are extremely valued, not only to drive award-winning innovations but also to solve day-to-day problems that get in the way of our company’s and industry’s progress and evolution. As defined in Netflix’s culture deck, which, according to Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, “may well be the most important document ever to come out of the Valley,” innovation is the reconceptualization of issues “to discover practical solutions to hard problems.”
INNOVATION AS A PERFORMANCE-DRIVING FORCE
As I mentioned, the relationship between innovation and performance has been broadly documented over the years, and empirical evidence has shown that innovative companies tend to perform better.
Innovation doesn’t just happen, though. You have to intentionally foster it by developing innovation-driven leaders within an innovation-fertile environment.
Changing processes, products, and methods requires courage—not only from the organization as an entity but also from the individual leaders within that organization. Fearless organizations are not afraid to test, experiment, and take calculated risks in the pursuit of problem-solving improvements. Meanwhile, fearless leaders lead with determination, discipline, and commitment to courageously change not only products and ideas but also the mindsets of those who resist change.
Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts to sustainable innovation; it requires long-term commitment, effort, investment, and sometimes a radical mind shift. However, I’ve found that the following three areas, when consciously developed, can become a solid foundation for all innovation efforts. When done right, the rewards will be unmatched.
1. HIRE FOR INNOVATION
Think about innovation as a sport in which the innovator is the team and not the individual. Therefore, to create highly innovative teams, make sure you hire individuals with different skill sets that, when combined, provide the organization with a strong, comprehensive capacity to innovate.
On one hand, you need idea generators—individuals with outstanding creative talent but also with the capacity to iterate and pivot fast and frequently, all while holding the vision. On the other hand, you need strong executioners with functional expertise who can carry the innovation forward. On both sides, I’ve found that innovators tend to have a multidisciplinary view of the job and of the industry, and a set of experiences that have helped them build a portfolio of capabilities that they apply almost in a general management-like way to the task of innovation. Each group is equally important, and innovation can’t flourish without both.
2. TURN THE FOCUS ONTO THE “HOW” INSTEAD OF THE “WHAT”
Innovation happens many times throughout the process, and much more important than the “what” (the idea) is the “how” (the process to bring an idea to life). It involves pivoting through the process to adapt the initial idea to new realities, new information that you may receive through the process, and new market conditions.
Striving for continual innovation instead of instant perfection is one of Google’s innovation pillars. At Google, maximum performance is reached through an iterative process in which teams can improve their products as they test them and learn from the interactions of the users. If Google waited to have perfect products before launching them, its most successful products might not exist today. The takeaway is that innovation is a continuous iteration process for which perfection expectations are counterproductive.
3. BUILD PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY
Psychological safety is not a new concept. It has been broadly documented and researched. As Amy C. Edmondson, a professor at Harvard Business School, defines it in her book The Fearless Organization, psychological safety is “the shared feeling that you can freely express your thoughts and ideas, or make mistakes and ask for help without receiving negative reactions.”
Innovation is often difficult no matter what. In addition to the creative effort, it requires alignment across team members and stakeholders with different personalities, styles, views, and even different cultures sometimes, which make it significantly harder. But where there is psychological safety, these challenges are easier to navigate.
But how exactly can organizations create psychological safety?
• Redefine failure: Innovating is usually difficult, but the fear of failure can shatter all innovation efforts. You can create a fearless environment by encouraging your teams to experiment and to fail often and fast. While this may seem contrary to all companies’ goals, some of the most innovative companies have embedded experimentation into their cultures and strongly encourage their teams to fail.
• Ask for help, and use the help: Reaching out to the experts in your field and embracing their recommendations shows one of the best leadership qualities: humility, which itself has been proven to increase teams’ performance. But additionally, it helps create fertile soil for innovative ideas.
• Be curious, and ask questions: Encourage your teams to openly and fearlessly communicate their perspectives and ideas, and be sure to actively listen with curiosity for their perspective. When we feel our perspectives are valued, we are more open to participate in discussions and offer our opinions.
In the current business context, the only certain thing is uncertainty. That uncertainty has manifested in the past decade as multibillion-dollar corporations being brought to their knees for refusing to open themselves to new ideas, and instead sticking to what is comfortable and common.
In today’s world, innovation is not a choice but a survival necessity, and the willingness to embrace it and to develop it will differentiate the winners from the losers. Tomorrow will be too late. Wise leaders must start now.
Ivonne Kinser is VP of Marketing and Innovation at Avocados From Mexico. Fast Company Executive Board Member. Writes about innovation & creativity.