How can some businesses seemingly leapfrog innovation?



I recently had the honour of being accepted to judge the Middle East and North Africa Stevie awards - management and customer service category. There was a broad range of submissions - from several different countries in the region, from publicly-funded innovation to community interest companies, from hyper-local to multinational, from seven different industries.


The dozens of submissions that I judged were different and special in their own way.

While each of them demonstrated how businesses have needed to pivot to respond to the pandemic, some of the innovations had been in train for some time. The most exciting submissions showed how innovation was weaved throughout the fabric of the organisation. The most challenging were innovations that broke ground and yet seemed familiar to me because I've seen parallel efforts in the UK market try to take off and yet fail.

Without the burden of regulation, bureaucracy, the ingrained power cultures that exist within large organisations that hold back progress these submissions show truly innovative approaches to change.


Closer to home, I’ve steered that level of creative disruption in healthcare. Looking back, one of the reasons why we’d been so successful was that we were able to disrupt the existing power relationships. We brought the ambition and the style of a much larger corporate entity, but with the dexterity of a small business. That isn’t the only difference. As a small business, we had an entirely different attitude to risk management.


In my experience of working within corporate environments, risk is often a taboo area. For example, established hierarchies have perpetuated a pecking order today that is an expression of a management culture or style that existed five years before sometimes ten years before. Even through transformation, change in leadership has a minimal impact in shifting the attitudes of a whole system. As new personalities with big ambitions and plans join the team, often the culture softens their edges; often it's imperceptible but the change is there. Smaller environments without those power structures can be disproportionately disruptive, especially if they leverage their agile approach to change from one area to another.

Another pattern I see is a paradoxical attachment to an outcome. Sometimes determination to achieve an outcome without attachment to the process gives a project extra creative impetus. Similarly, where teams are attached to progress and not an outcome – that is, if they succeed or fail they will have grown, they can be more likely to take risks and to dare. Both are hugely empowering to the teams involved and not necessarily a natural approach in a corporate environment.


So how do I advise senior leaders to build a culture around innovation?


Generally, I build a picture of exponential growth. It’s a concept that stretches what is possible and opens up new opportunities. It also applies evolutionary learning that embraces (and compounds) trial and error. In this realm, leaders are stimulated by what could be achieved and challenged about the elements that need to change in terms of creativity, diversity, and failure to reach those goals. When managers manage rather than lead it can reinforce a fear of stepping out of line, challenging, failing rather than learning and growing. In exponential leadership, the stakes are higher but there is an acknowledged reward in the growth process itself and the significant progress that is made even if the target isn’t reached.


Aiming for 10x better does require bold thinking but can outstrip those who settle for 10% better.

Looking back at some of the submissions I can certainly see those traits of finding a new path and the rewards are very clear.

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