An Exploration of Innovation: An Organization’s Only Insurance Against Irrelevance

By Dawn Marie Bailey

Prepare for an inspiring journey is the message for audience members of the upcoming 29th Annual Quest for Excellence© Conference, as they listen to keynote presenter Polly LaBarre, co-founder and director of Management Lab (MLab) and co-founder of MIX (Management Innovation eXchange).

Addressing some probing questionssuch as “How do you create a DNA-deep, sustaining capacity for innovation?” “What does it mean to be a leader in a creative, connected, disruptive world?” and “How do you create organizations that unleash rather than squash human potential?”LaBarre will reveal practical, high-impact ways to innovate, adapt, and succeed, redefining how leadership, change, innovation, collaboration, employee engagement, organizational culture, accountability, and disruptive strategy are done.

Through a virtual interview, I asked some of my own questions of LaBarre, who is also co-author of Mavericks at Work and founding member of Fast Company.

Your website says you have a passion for “framing the big questions that will rule the future of business.” Can you provide some of those questions?

The first big question is How do you create a DNA-deep, sustaining capacity for innovation?

You’d be hard pressed to meet a CEO or a leader today who doesn’t put innovation at the top of the agenda. And yet, how many organizations have devoted the energy and resources it takes to systematically build innovation into the values, processes, and practices that rule everyday activity and behavior? Not many. According to a recent McKinsey & Co. study, just 6 percent of leaders are satisfied with their company’s innovation performance. What gives?

That disconnect isn’t due to lack of human ingenuity or resources. It’s a product of organizational DNA. Productivity, predictability, and alignment are embedded in the marrow of our management systems. Experimentation, risk-taking, and variety are the enemy of the efficiency machine that is the “modern” corporation. Of course, it’s variety (and the daring to be different) that produces game-changing innovation. If you want to develop a sustaining capacity for innovation, think about how do we make our management systems and practices enablers and catalysts of innovation (rather than impediments to it)? Put another way, how do we plan and prioritize, define roles and structures, allocate resources, measure and evaluate, equip and reward people, and develop new products to support innovation?

For instance, you might ask yourself:

  • How might we create more slack and support for the pursuit of new things?
  • Could we re-think how we design work to cultivate more entrepreneurial energy?
  • What could we change in the way we evaluate leaders to cultivate more experimentation?
  • Could we open up our product development process to involve more stakeholders?
  • What market-based approach could we imagine to evaluate and fund new ideas?

The answer to every one of those questions is what I call a “management hack”—an alternative to conventional management practice designed to uproot bureaucracy and cultivate innovation and adaptability.

A second big question for the future: What does it mean to be a leader in a creative, connected, disruptive world?

We live in a world where leadership, power, and influence are less about “where you sit” and more about “what you can do.” The most compelling leaders understand that authority is not bestowed by a title but is rather a currency you earn (and must keep earning) from your peers. The most effective individuals are constantly striving to maximize their ratio of accomplishment over authority.

In that context, what is the work of leadership today? How do you conduct yourself as a leader day in and day out to keep yourself and your team moving with the times? A short course in 21st century leadership would probe the following:

  • Are you learning as fast as the world is changing? The imperative today is to remain open and hungry when it comes to discovering and experimenting with new ideas and new methods—to cultivate a first-person experience with the future.
  • Do you ask more questions than you give answers? This is a good one for anyone in a position of authority—parents and leaders alike. Questions offer up a powerful advantage in a world of expanding complexity and intense change—they help you attract more possibilities, surface more perspectives, and enlist more support to your cause. It’s not easy to get in the habit of asking questions in a world that values knowledge and mastery. If you’re having trouble, take your lead from a toddler and start asking: Why? Why not? What if?
  • Are you unreasonable enough? Turns out that all change is against the rules. Creativity is fundamentally subversive in nature. It’s the leader’s job to develop a contrarian point of view, invite dissent, and take an activist role in questioning and devising alternatives to the status quo. The most productive rebels aren’t out to make trouble—but to make genuine progress in the world.

A third big question: How do you create organizations that unleash rather than squash human potential?

One of the most important question for any leader today is How do we create a work environment that inspires exceptional contribution and merits an outpouring of passion, imagination, and initiative? It doesn’t matter if you are part of a giant, global company or a local chapter of a nonprofit, the most important leverage you can get when it comes to building a vibrant and sustainable organization is the human edge. What are you doing to unleash each person’s human gifts—creativity, zeal, resourcefulness?

The most effective and inspiring leaders today understand that there is no tradeoff between creativity and discipline, between inventing the future and “turning the crank.” Instead, they are relentlessly clever when it comes to creating mechanisms for individuals to express themselves, to contribute, and to hold each other accountable at the same time.

A final big question to consider: Are you different enough to make a difference?

More than ever, the value you create is a function of the values you assert as an organization. Organizations animated by a deeply felt and widely shared sense of purpose are breeding grounds for passion—the ultimate multiplier of human effort.

At a time when customers are contending with a seemingly limitless universe of urgent and compelling alternatives and demands on their time, how do you stand out? This isn’t an exercise in branding so much as a process of excavating, sharpening, and sharing a powerful sense of purpose. What do you stand for? What are you against? How do you draw that line in the sand? How do you keep sharpening the set of ideas in every interaction with your people and your customers?

Two helpful questions to keep asking yourselves as leaders and as a larger team: What ideas are you fighting for? And, are you really who you say you are?

Why is the focus on innovation so important to a business? Is that importance still true for a nonprofit, a health care organization, a school?

Innovation is the only insurance against irrelevance in a world of unrelenting change. It’s the only antidote to the margin-crushing impact of global competition. It’s the only defense against younger, hungrier industry insurgents. It’s the only guarantee of continued customer loyalty.

And it’s just as crucial for nonprofits, health care organizations, and even schools. Why? Every organization and every leader today is contending with a rapidly changing reality—wave after wave of disruptive technology, increasing interdependence of our institutions, social and environmental challenges, and the escalating demands of a variety of stakeholders. Organizations operate within the toughest constraints, and most need to tap into the full potential of their people to build a sustaining capacity to innovate and adapt. One of the most cost-effective, risk-bound, and fast ways to start to build your innovation muscles is to experiment with experimentation. How many options can you generate, quickly test, and iterate on? How many people can you involve across the organization in creating its future?

Polly LaBarre will be the Quest for Excellence Conference Wednesday keynote speaker and also will facilitate a panel discussion on “The Innovation Advantage.” Conference registration is now open.

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