Innovate? Yes, We Can

Keith Ayers
Thursday, August 21, 2008; 12:00 AM

Barack Obama's campaign to win the Democratic nomination was a breakthrough in grassroots campaigning. His use of the internet and social media sites to fund and organize the campaign resulted in upsetting an established candidate who'd been considered the inevitable pick by political pundits. As a result, Obama and his campaign have been lauded for their innovative approach.Comparatively, most small businesses struggle with innovation. I recently encountered a management team of a small computer company struggling to come up with ideas for new markets for their specialized computers. New competitors had caught up with their technology and were taking market share away from them. In desperation, the company took its sales and sales-support staff away, along with its management team, for a weekend retreat. There, they came up with the breakthrough ideas they were looking for--the most creative from a sales-support staffer.What Obama's campaign knew, and the small computer company learned, was that in any organization, the people on the front-line are those who know most about what customers like--and what they don't like. They know the systems and processes that enhance performance and customer satisfaction, and those that don't work smoothly and can drive customers crazy.But how often are they asked to help create improved systems and processes? Obama's campaign used social connection software to invite his supporters--his front line--to organize and create campaign strategies that would work for the local conditions. He asked them to contribute to improving the systems, processes and voter-interaction in his campaign. That was his insight, and it's the lesson every business leader can take away from his or her success. For voter--think customer, and for campaign--think business.The problem is, innovation is often misunderstood. Many business leaders think innovation is a rare gift that exists primarily in people holding leadership roles. As I heard one manager say: "That's why I get paid the big bucks!"The Innovation ProcessInnovation is not a brilliant idea; innovation is a process. A brilliant idea becomes an innovation when it's turned into a product or system that produces significantly improved results. There are four steps and four leadership roles that emerge during an innovation process:

Creating--Everything starts with an idea, and there's no question that every organization needs new ideas to remain competitive and deal with the rapidly changing world. The most talented people don't have to work at coming up with ideas; they see possibilities everywhere. They don't see things as they are, but how they could be. Of course, not all their ideas are brilliant; in fact, some are really off-the-wall. But that doesn't deter the "Creators." They just keep seeing those possibilities.Advancing--Many great ideas have died on the vine because they weren't picked up. Fortunately, there are people who have a natural talent for recognizing good ideas and running with them. That is, they're more focused on implementation than on creating ideas, and they also have a talent for interaction. Because they make things happen, they've developed the ability to sell others on an idea and get it running.Refining--Before the "Advancers" charge off and implement an idea, it would make sense to have a workable plan that has no holes in it. "Refiners" often play the devil's advocate role, asking the challenging "what if?" questions. It's important to keep refiners focused on developing a plan to make the idea work rather than just focusing on why it won't work. If you can't make it work it will become apparent. The refiner's talent for analysis and attention to detail are often undervalued because they tend to challenge both the creator and advancer--but don't implement a new idea until you've listened to their input.Executing--One of the primary reasons great ideas fail to create an innovative change is a lack of follow-through. Implementation of the plan step-by-step--ensuring that all team members follow-through on their responsibilities--requires the talents of the "Executer;" they're focused on the day-to-day realities of what must get done, and making sure it does get done. Only when the executer has completed their part of the process can the innovation be considered complete and a success.

The reason many organizations fail at innovation is because leaders don't understand that innovation is a four-step process, and the talents required at each step of the process are very different. So different in fact, that it's unlikely for one individual to excel at more than one of the four steps. This means that for innovation to succeed, it needs to be a team-based process. But not all teams have team members with all of the required talents.Take the management team of the small computer company referred to earlier. They did not have any creators on their team, and as a result, they did not come up with any new ideas. It was only when they expanded their team to include the software support specialist that they had someone in that role.Without advancers, ideas do not get acted upon or the team fails to get the support they need for the idea. Without refiners, ideas that are not fully thought through get implemented and mistakes get made. And, as previously said, without executors, plans are not followed-through to completion.The key to creating a culture of innovation is for leaders to recognize the talents needed, identify those talents in their team members and encourage full team participation in working through the innovation process. Most businesses do not have the resources of a major political campaign, and, unlike Barack Obama, you can't invite a million people to sign up, knowing that with that many people you're bound to have all four types represented. You can, however, create a culture of innovation in your team, and remember that it's the "we" in "Yes, we can!" that will drive innovation forward. Keith Ayers is President of Integro Leadership Institute, which helps business owners develop a vision and purpose for their businesses.

© 2008, Inc.