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The smell of innovation

The smell of innovation

Why innovation does not smell, and your firm should hire transformational leaders.


Recently I was talking to a friend, who was venting her frustration on her new employer, she had joined few months earlier. She was particularly upset by how well she had bought the idea that her new firm wanted really to change and become an innovator, and by how quickly – after joining – she realized that no such a change was going to happen. One of her comments stuck with him: “I could smell innovation in the office”. And while probably innovation does not have a smell, when we enter an office and meet new people, we can sense freedom and autonomy, we can feel frustration, the dust of culture and people’s attitude, and very many other aspects that happen to relate to innovation.

What my friend misread – and mistook for innovativeness – were office stimuli to creativeness. Creativity – as the ability to generate unique and original, yet compelling and relevant, ideas or solutions to a problem – is only but one side of the equation. As Ralph Talmont wrote on this blog, creativity is about dissenting, about having minority opinions, and it’s what is going to save your company in the future. But our ability to innovate relates to our ability to make it happen, to convert that crazy and unique idea into a business; to launch it, test it and learn from it; to expect the failures and being able to deal with it. And the latter depends by formal processes as much as by our ability to work the system, for example, by innovating under the radar screen – as posited by IESE Professor Paddy Miller. The challenge to launching original ideas, in Miller’s own words, boils down to:

“CEOs of large organizations are constantly barraged with proposals for new, untested projects, and typically, the ideas get a five-minute perusal followed by a “no.” And even if your idea does win support from the C-suite, early exposure is a double-edged sword: It buys you legitimacy and resources, but it also thrusts you squarely into the corporate spotlight—and that can be a dangerous place for young, unproven ideas.”

Both creativity and innovativeness within a company depend on intrinsic and extrinsic factors. The first set deals with the innate ability of certain individuals to develop creative ideas or find creative solutions. The latter – instead – deals with the firm’s ability to train those people, and keep them fit and inspired in their creative endeavors: and it is – therefore – dependent on processes, culture, and management.

In this context, what is often underestimated, is the role of management in making innovation happen, and in particular, the management style: too often companies aim at transforming themselves into more efficient innovators, by either changing their processes – without updating their rewarding systems, or by ensuring that the processes “walk the talk” – or by redefining their culture – once again in a silo, without tapping into new talent better fitting the new culture, or by remembering that such events have psychological effects on talent and tend to constraint their ability to innovate. Whereas the fastest way of getting your organization to innovate more, and more quickly, really depends on unleashing the right leadership. More specifically, by promoting a transformational leadership, firms can become more innovative, more quickly.

By empowering their employees, transformational leaders enable more creative and innovative climates. First and foremost, because they improve creative talent’s perception of the firm’s related extrinsic factors, by:

  • offering individualized considerations, which become an important reward token in the eye of the prospective innovators;
  • stimulating intellectually their people, they promote and enhance explorative thinking;
  • promoting autonomy, they energize their talents towards a common, shared goal.

Moreover transformational leaders, also promote conversion of creative ideas into innovative projects, by mobilizing their talent, in a way that innovators:

  • more clearly see corporate hurdles and identify ways of moving the project forward;
  • focus more on the learning, than on the market success of the products, by not perceiving a launch failure as a jeopardy to their own career
  • feel less change-related stress, which ultimately lets them being change makers rather than change killers.
  • navigate (inside and outside) the organization by looking for mentors and advisers, for the people who might provide resources when and where not available

For this to work, transformational leaders need to be throughout the organization, not only at the top of the firm’s hierarchy. Not unexpectedly, they are too often perceived as a threat by managers with other styles of leadership, but also they are not as common as others. Which also explains while most firms won’t use them in their corporate transformation processes.

In conclusion, while many organization try – or better, pretend to try – to transform themselves into more innovative beings, they more likely will tackle first elements that reassure their own management and employees that change is going to happen, and that innovation and creativity are going to be their new mantra. These days, even the most traditional organizations, will use catchy words in their vision, or redesign their office with elements featuring creative typography, black and white or lomo-photography, and furniture rooms with fat boys and videogames. They want you to sense openness and autonomy; they want you to feel the warmth of inspiring practices, and that they are geared towards the future. But unfortunately there is no smell for innovation, and short of a transformational leader, it’s probably all for show.

Growth Adviser, Innovation Catalyst, Branding Architect, International Expansion Consultant. International change agent and leader, launched growth consulting boutique in 2012. We have four principal areas or intervention 1) Branding (e.g., positioning of new brands, re-positioning of existing brands, brand architecture and design) 2) Innovation (e.g., co-creation with consumers and experts, ideation, business planning, concept validation and fine-tuning) 3) International Expansion (e.g., countries screening and development of expansion plan, route to market strategy, portfolio) 4) Route to Market (e.g. marketing and commercial planning, portfolio analysis).