A lot has been said on the subject of innovation in the past and I am sure it will be discussed more in the future. But it is necessary to focus on the understated role of the leader who nurtures innovation so that it is successful. However, I cannot ignore one ultimate reality of innovation, that an innovation is the one that is successful in the market.
I remember the time when a very capable solution architect in my team walked up to me and said that he wanted to show me something that was interesting. I kept on delaying meeting him for “obvious important reasons”, subjecting him through the cliche of “not having a time slot” because of “scheduled meetings”. Finally, through his tenacious followup I relented and agreed for a demo. To my surprise, it was a software solution to a problem and it was both elegant and simple. The concept was almost ready to be converted into a product. We then hurried up, set up a small team to work with him and developed it into a full-fledged solution that is now sitting inside thousands of cars.
I could have killed the product at the inception itself by not giving it enough time and attention and I admit, I did not spend much time - maybe 10 minutes, before he convinced me that it is indeed something worth taking forward. This taught me a very big lesson about finding time to listen to people. I also had a revelation that the concept of sitting inside the cabin creates this culture which is a killer for discussing ideas that spring up randomly and need a quick catch. If only I could have created a habit of doing this multiple times in a day, I could have facilitated creation of many more ideas.
Ideas can be killed in multiple ways though. Sometimes, the engineering of an idea into a product can frustrate the innovator of the idea. I started running a weekly meeting for a very complex product that posed a constant friction between two sets of a multi-disciplinary team. It took me some time and empathy to understand which two factions are in continuous brawl with each other. In the two groups of people involved in arm wrestling, the first had created the idea and the second was tasked to convert it into a tangible product. Both wanted the idea to succeed but the approaches were diametrically opposite. The creator of the idea was all about how the idea worked and excited about the solution whereas the analytical engineers assigned to transform it into a product were all about the problem—what will not work, what are the risks, and the time, efforts and money needed to fix it. Both the teams were performing their roles for the betterment of the product and yet they were in conflict and had moved away from each other. As a result, the product was suffering. We set up a weekly meeting to help the team get together regularly. With a bit of lobbying with each faction about how the other group was “maybe” correct in their approach and how it was “necessary” for the product to be established in the market, we managed to create a team environment with acknowledgement of each other’s attributes which accelerated the product development. Common tools for communication, defect management and a process to manage the change, of course, added to the smooth functioning of the team.
One more way an idea can get killed at the inception stage is by asking the technical people to present the idea to the management. More often than not, some good thinkers and solution finders may not be good presenters and the experience of presenting the idea to the management is usually frustrating to them. Answers to some problems many times lie in the uncomfortable zone of intuition; and intuition, by nature, is very difficult to present to someone who is very objective. We had this experience once when one of our brightest engineers solved a problem on a hunch, created a prototype, and proved his hunch only to be successfully frustrated later, by an engineer from customer side, who put some basic theory on paper and proved that the concept won’t work, even though the experiment was showing positive results. We scrapped that project.
Often, I see the conflict between “work at hand” and “work necessary for the future”. This could be a very notorious innovation-killer. We all know that the business is governed by the performance of quarter on quarter metrics, there is no denying that reality. But a sustainable business will have to absorb the shocks of change in the marketplace, in technology, in business models and in customers’ thinking. Innovation will be necessary to adapt to these changes and getting it to market is a mid-term to long-term pursuit at best. It cannot necessarily earn quick return in most of the cases. This conflict of priorities of today and tomorrow can suck resources from tomorrow into today and hurt the innovation process.
The obvious solution seems to be to separate the teams that address the opportunities of today and tomorrow, but that has an inherent problem. If you create walls between the teams of today and tomorrow with a structure, the teams of tomorrow will lose one of the most important ingredients required for problem-identification, interaction with the customer and the market. One solution we found out was to create a process and forum which mingles the teams together to share the information and address this problem.
Innovators are passionate about their ideas. Though an ideal innovator should be persistent and should be able to take criticism positively, we don’t always come across ideal people. The leader’s role is to fix the problem by observing and managing people to resist the suppression of new ideas. Sometimes, good people are high on the talent but lack people skills. The leaders should make sure that such people get recognised for their talent and don’t get butchered for the absence of people skills. The leader has to avoid the temptation of being consultative and should instead be in the questioning mode, forcing the innovator to explore and think. That would create a positive ownership of the issues in the mind of the innovator. The leader needs to be a bridge between the innovator, the engineering teams and the management, providing support & resources to help fill the gaps & take ideas successfully to the market.
Leadership in innovation is all about educating and motivating the team to see what the other person’s role is and help develop an ability in the team to appreciate the other roles and the talent rather than getting frustrated about why the person is not a mirror image of oneself. One observation made has been that most of the productive discussions for new ideas and their development happen during relaxed activities like, tea and coffee breaks. A good leader should create informal settings as well as forums, and facilitate a frictionless atmosphere conducive for free thinking.
I believe that a leader plays a pivotal role in fostering innovation inside an organisation. An organisation focusing on innovation should not only have a good process for creating innovative ideas but also create a good leadership pipeline that nurtures the innovation to take it to the market.
Courtesy: KPIT Technologies