August 19

The softer side of innovation – Let them eat cake!

Whether or not Marie-Antoinette ever spoke those immortal words is to a certain extent irrelevant. What is far more important is the extent to which the general populace felt her to be out of touch with their plight. Ineptitude, decadence, the rise of the belief in the rights of man, all played their part in what was a fundamental schism between the ruling classes and the French people.

Admittedly it is perhaps a little drastic to compare the French Revolution with the changes required to enable some businesses to step into the 21st Century but the world does move on and business moves on and ideas which may have sustained one generation are simply wrong for the next. As business moved from the industrial age in which the focus was on physical product and manufacturing into the information age in which technology enabled us to create services and systems, the way in which business people interacted also had to change. Now the world has moved on again into the innovation age, transforming from a focus on ‘what’ we do to ‘how’ we do it and in the process a culture of innovation now sits at the heart of delivering an exceptional customer experience.

As soon as we shift innovation away from the traditional product focus and start to look at experiences, softer skills inevitably come into play. Skills such as empathy and empowerment, collaboration and inspiration all form a vital part of the interplay between organisation and employee and between employee and customer. In fact so interwoven is the link between soft skills and the implementation of a culture of innovation that it can be difficult to define and pin down explicit links. However the work I’ve done over the last decade working with and advising some of the most successful organisations in the world means I can say from personal experience and observation that there are things that just work and are vital to innovation, and a good proportion of them are soft!

In order to drive innovation organisations do need to understand more about the skills which need to be integrated at all levels. The majority of the work I do revolves around helping organisations build a structured approach to innovation from strategy to leadership and then to culture; and soft skills play a part at every stage. Building these skills alone isn’t the sole answer to the innovation challenge but it is a required part of the mix. Starting with those which are more traditionally focused around managers and leaders; the CEO and leadership team which have mastered influencing and inspiring, leadership and vision setting may well be on the right path to instilling a culture of innovation.

But innovation also requires the end of silos and the building of collaborative relationships and this means mastering communication alongside teamwork and co-operation. Finally there needs to be a clear understanding about the soft skills that are very personal to the individual and those that are somewhat controlled by the working environment, culture and pressure. Leaders need to foster confidence and creativity, adaptability and initiative if employees are truly going to be able to adapt to an innovation methodology.

In all of this it is important not to overvalue or undervalue hard or soft skills. Both are required when the goal is to build the right culture for innovation to flourish and in order to achieve a successful outcome both need to be measured, assessed and actively worked on. In a way we are back to that cake again. Slavishly following the recipe can bring the average cook success but they will be left floundering if something goes wrong. The great chefs know that great cooking not only needs the right physical ingredients, it also requires a mix of skill, flair and instinctive understanding.

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Culture, Differentiation, Innovation, Innovation Consultant, Innovation Culture, Strategy

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