Do you remember the 2010s? The US economy was in its most prolonged ever period of expansion. Unemployment was at a 50-year low, and there were 110 months of uninterrupted job gains.
Everyone talked about innovation.
Entrepreneurs worked at it, and their startups became unicorns while they became celebrities.
The big companies, the companies with capital, scale, and resources far exceeding that of any startup or even a unicorn, only played with it.
Sure, they hosted hackathons and shark tanks, spun up innovation teams and corporate venture capital arms, and took field trips to Silicon Valley and Burning Man. But what do they have to show for it? What market (re)defining value came from all that activity?
Because it’s nearly impossible to change when you have no immediate need to change.
Too often, success stifles innovation.
But leaders can change that.
Keep innovation on your RADAR
As a manager, you need to deliver today’s business by keeping costs down and revenue up.
As a leader, you want to establish a legacy of long-term success that fuels the business and inspires your people long after you’ve moved to your next role.
The key to achieving both is through the daily practice of innovation. While many leadership behaviors create a culture of innovation and drive business results, I’ve found that RADAR is a handy acronym for some of the key practices of top leaders.
Innovation is something new that creates value. Most people interpret this to mean that innovation is a new to the world product that makes billions in revenue. And while that may be true, it’s much too myopic.
“Something” could be anything from a product to a process, service, revenue model, or delivery model. “New” could be new to the world or your industry, company, function, or team. “Value” could be more revenue or lower costs, higher profits, a better/faster/cheaper/easier experience, or even greater customer or employee satisfaction.
By expanding the definition of innovation, you invite more people into its practice and create more opportunities for innovation to thrive.
As a leader, it’s natural to feel like you need to have the answers. And sometimes, you do. But often, it’s more vital for you to ask the right questions.
By asking questions, you’re teaching your people to think and take ownership of their work. You’re also demonstrating that you trust them because they are closer to the work than you are. If all you give are answers, you won’t get any wiser, and neither will your team. If you ask questions, everyone, including you, will get smarter and make better decisions.
When faced with a problem, it’s tempting to jump right to a solution. But if you jump too soon, you could jump to the wrong solution or create an even bigger problem.
Instead, fall in love with the problem. Explore it, question it, embrace it, amplify it, turn it inside out, take it to the extreme. Then, once you’ve embraced the mess that is the problem, play with possible solutions – how would a different industry solve the problem, what if you focused on solving only one key aspect, how could you make it worse?
Yes, this will be uncomfortable (which is why it’s ok to timebox the exercise), but it will also push your team’s thinking and uncover options you never knew existed.
Some lessons can only be learned through experience. As a kid, you know the burner on the stove is hot, but you don’t fully understand how hot it is until you put your hand on it (and then you never forget)
Imperfect action is always a better teacher than perfect inaction. Yes, you need to do the research and conduct the analysis, but eventually, there comes the point when doing is a better way to learn.
Reflect on Lessons Learned
You build knowledge through instruction and skills through experience, but you don’t lock those things in and convert them into habits until you reflect on what you heard and did.
Set your team up to learn at the start of a project by asking what they expect will happen and why, what they’ll do if they’re right, and what they’ll do if they’re wrong. No judgment, no keeping score, just an exercise to prime you and your team for learning
At the end, reflect on the journey. Ask what went right, what went wrong, what went as expected, what didn’t, what we would do differently, and what will we change. Record the answers without judgment and create a plan to put them into action on the next project
How will you keep innovation on your RADAR?
Building innovation habits is key to ensuring that success doesn’t stifle innovation. Daily habits like those in RADAR will make amplifying and unleashing innovation easier.
I’d love to hear what other innovation habits you practice. How do you keep innovation on your RADAR?