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How Executives Drive Innovation

There’s an interesting thing that happens on the journey to the executive suite – we begin to lose our ability to innovate.

We can deny it, but it’s true. It’s happened to me and I’ve seen it happen to countless others. It’s a gradual process so we tend not to notice, but others do. It’s a big reason why water cooler banter at just about every organization includes a consistent dose of complaints about leadership being out of touch.

There are two reasons why it happens. First, the closer we are to the executive suite the further we are from our customers. That’s a problem since the catalyst for real, value-creating innovation is understanding customer problems and finding solutions as quickly as possible. Second, the closer we are to the executive suite the more resources (budget and people) we have to deploy toward the things we believe should be done.

Think about that for second.

As a leader’s ability to understand customer problems decreases,
their ability to deploy time and money solving those problems increases.

That’s a recipe for big, expensive failures in pursuit of what an executive believes is innovation but in reality is just their own personal opinion on what should be done.

In order to drive innovation, executive leaders must focus their attention on building a culture that encourages those closest to the customers to fearlessly spotlight problems and empowers them to propose ideas to solve them. Not only are their ideas almost always the best ideas but, because they’re developed by people who don’t have lots of resources to deploy, they’re usually the most efficient.

In other words, executives drive innovation by creating a culture where everyone, at every level of the organization, is willing and able to express their opinions about what the company could be doing better. The executive’s job then becomes simply determining the appropriate level of resources to devote to each idea.

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