Expert Interview Series: Cris Beswick discusses how to get your organization to embrace innovation


Embrace Innovation

Cris Beswick is recognized globally as a thought leader on innovation strategy, leadership, and culture, and is the co-author of Building a Culture of Innovation. We recently sat down with Cris to discuss the complex-yet-important process of committing to, establishing a culture of, and delivering organizational innovation…

Tell us a bit about your background. Why are you so passionate about organizational innovation?

I spent over a decade in the design and creative industry and have an absolute belief that design thinking, which fundamentally underpins innovation, can propel organizations forward, and make them truly exceptional. When we introduce the way designers approach problems into traditional organizations, it fundamentally changes the way they approach “how” they do things. It forces deeper questioning and empathy, and that builds an understanding of customers, problems, opportunities, wants, needs, etc. When we can help organizations behave in this way, incredible things happen.

If a corporate leader were to say to you, “I’m not concerned with boosting innovation throughout my company. I’ve got a research & development department for that,” how might you respond?

I think the first answer to that question is to at least start with an element of empathy for that leader’s perspective. It’s easy to wade straight in with the usual “But if you don’t innovate you’ll die!” rhetoric, but they may run a business where that kind of silo approach is the best approach in the context of what they are doing at present. However, the bigger picture is always one where we look at innovation as a “mix” of activity. The R&D approach to innovation will always be focused on new product development, as that’s the function of that department. However, the R&D team won’t be focused on operation efficiency, marketing, customer experience, or business models, so the key is to get leaders to see that innovation impacts all parts of the business – so that innovation happens everywhere, every day.

What is “innovation maturity,” and how does it impact the way companies operate?

Innovation maturity is a way of describing (and more importantly, measuring) an organization’s current capability, approach, and culture in the context of innovation. I’ve built several innovation maturity assessments for different companies all over the world, and the core thing it helps drive is an understanding of what’s holding innovation back at any given time. These assessments also help create a framework for the change that innovation requires, and they’re typically structured around defined maturity levels. A great example of a typical innovation maturity structure outlines four stages of maturity: Novice, Apprentice, Professional, and Innovation Leader.

When you can understand granular perspectives on the things leaders are doing or aren’t doing to drive innovation, or whether middle managers are providing the right resources and environment for innovation, or if communication and understanding around innovation is at the right level across the organization, then you can build interventions to remove those innovation barriers and increase the components that enable innovation.

How do you go about convincing the leaders of a decades-old company or organization that improved innovation is vital if they wish to experience continued success?

I think most leaders now recognize that innovation capability is crucial, so having to work too hard to convince them that they should look at building innovation as a core capability isn’t as common as it was even just a few years ago. The numerous surveys and annual reports done by some of the world’s leading consultancies every year show that senior teams and CEOs are placing innovation in the top few strategic imperatives, so the case for change is well understood.

The other side to that is, if I do have to work too hard to convince a senior team that innovation capability is something they should look at, they probably aren’t an organization that’s ready for someone like me to help them. When we talk about innovation as an outcome of “what” and more importantly “how” an organization does things, it requires strong and courageous leadership. This “innovation leadership” requires alignment at that level around what is needed to push an organization forward into the future.

In most companies today, which is the bigger problem: a lack of innovative thinking at the highest levels of management, or a failure to identify or discover innovative ideas created by front line employees or middle managers? 

I don’t think it’s a lack of “innovative thinking” at the senior level as much of a lack of understanding innovation and what it takes at the senior level. At its core, innovation only happens when enough people in an organization have the desire to solve problems and change things for the better for the future.

However, many businesses are still too eager to label themselves as innovative. But you cannot simply proclaim this quality. Putting a crown on my head doesn’t make me the King of England, and the same is true when it comes to professing “we are innovative” or “we have the most innovative product on the market.” The reality is, only customers can label an organization innovative as a byproduct of what they do and how they do it. That means innovation is really an outcome of lots of ingredients like behavior, habit, insight, collaboration, creativity, and so on.

As a former designer, I was measured on how well I applied things like design thinking, entrepreneurship, empathy, and customer-centricity, and I now find we’ve come full circle in that nearly every business area is using these tools to deliver genuinely different solutions – and in turn drive innovation and shape the future.

Finish this sentence: “If you want to create a company-wide culture of innovation, the most important action to take FIRST is…” 

Simple… build an innovation roadmap!

Since innovation is a byproduct of building an amazing organization, that means it’s about people, and culture is crucial. That also means it takes time to put the right things in place and change behaviors, actions, capabilities, and mindsets. It’s also crucial to start out from day one with a clear picture of what that journey looks like as linked to the existing company strategy. I’ve seen far too many organizations dive straight into “being innovative” without any clear strategy, roadmap for change, or leadership understanding around what and how to drive innovation. My approach with CEOs and senior leaders is around three core activities: establish an innovation strategy, enable the innovation leaders, and then (and only then) start to embed a culture of innovation across the organization.

What advice might you have for organizational leaders to help them convince entrenched, rigid, and/or narrow-minded employees and middle managers of the value of innovation?

One of the key things that most leaders need to address is that middle managers in most organizations are what I call the “innovation gatekeepers.” For many, leadership may be top-down, and innovation delivery may be bottom-up; but I think building a culture of innovation is “middle-out,” i.e. done at the middle-management layer so it radiates it out across all levels above and below. I think it’s here where innovation either flies or dies.  When you show middle managers how innovation can help them do their jobs better, they not only embrace it in their work, but also evangelize its value up and down the business.

The reality is, given the choice, most employees would love the opportunity to get involved in doing things differently, being creative, and (most importantly) solving the problems they see and face every day, especially for customers. The challenge is the people who manage the middle managers are the ones typically most under pressure to get those employees to deliver the core day-to-day business objectives. Yet the middle managers are also typically the layer that leaders pass the innovation baton to.

The reality is, middle managers have a unique understanding of the corporate strategy, day-to-day operations, and the relationship between the two sides of the business: leaders and employees. Furthermore, they are the ones who are most under pressure to deliver outcomes that positively impact the customer and the balance sheet.

Since many companies acknowledge the need for innovation, what are the traits and qualities of those who will actually accomplish this goal and succeed in the future? 

One specific challenge of innovation is its relative newness, especially for businesses that need and want to embrace it. When we talk about building a culture of innovation, there’s still a huge gap in understanding what that means. This is very different from fostering a culture of compliance or a culture of customer experience; those strategic objectives are very well-known. But when it comes to innovation, very few people know how to even define it for their organization, let alone democratize it and leverage it across the organization.

However, what we see when we look at organizations that have embraced innovation as a cultural capability and are delivering truly amazing things for customers is that they’ve understood not so much what they needed to learn, but what they needed to unlearn. And from my experience, the biggest proportion of unlearning is done within senior teams. All too often, it’s the core behaviors that are unconsciously embedded in their day-to-day work which end up being the most significant barriers to innovation.

The innovation vanguard companies have realized that the traditional ways of doing business block innovation and just don’t work for the environment organizations must now compete in. To make sure these mistakes don’t pass to the future generation of leaders, I’ve worked with numerous CEOs, leadership teams and HR Directors to redesign their leadership development programs around the core behaviors of innovation.

Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to any of this, so the road to innovation will vary from one organization to the next. But unless CEOs and senior teams move on from making the decision and actually act to start building a strategic approach to innovation, then I would suggest they’d better be prepared to watch innovation-led competitors shape the future.

This interview was previously posted on 13/04/2017 on johnmattone.com

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