This article originally appeared on ExecuNet on December 6, 2017
By Kumar Mehta
All business leaders want to innovate and release those rare, inspirational and highly desirable products that their customers line up to buy. In their quest to learn how to innovate they often look outside their organizations and wonder how successful entrepreneurs did it. They want to learn the secrets of Steve Jobs, or Thomas Edison, or any of a special set of individuals who have changed the world through innovation. They look outward and ask themselves questions like, how does Silicon Valley innovate? Who can I bring in who will create the culture of a successful startup? Sometimes they engage consultants to drive the innovation process, hoping they can transform the company into an innovation juggernaut.
This thinking is often flawed, and while few executives may realize it, the bright, bold innovators they are looking for are very likely toiling away within their own walls and are in fact at risk of leaving and starting their own successful companies. As a leader, you would be best served if you can identify and retain these individuals and provide them with an environment where they can innovate.
Looking outward for answers is not going to change anything, you need to cultivate innovation from within.
Enhancing the rate of innovation in a large organization involves thinking differently about management, rewards, failure, risk risk-takingorities, placement of the best and brightest people, and the innovation process in general. Entrepreneurs have an intrinsic understanding of how to think innovatively. Corporations have lost that somewhere along the line.
This is not because corporations lack entrepreneurial talent. They have within their ranks the bold thinkers and entrepreneurs who can take the great ideas and build successful businesses from them. Studies have shown that corporations are the greatest breeding ground for entrepreneurs. The Kauffman Foundation studied 549 founders of successful businesses in high-growth industries, including aerospace, defense, computing, electronics, and health care. Their study shows that over 75 percent of these successful entrepreneurs worked at other companies for more than six years before starting their own companies, and, unlike the vision we may hold in our minds of successful entrepreneurs, the average age of these company founders was forty.
The problem is that corporations are unable to retain the entrepreneurs within their ranks. The most creative and motivated talent goes off to start new companies that often create immense societal (and shareholder) value against all odds. Had the original employers been able to provide a more fertile environment for innovation, there is a good chance that great new business ventures would have been formed internally. And since these innovations would have been supported by the resources of a large organization, their chances of success would have been greater (many experts estimate that 80–90 percent of startups fail).
There are a number of things you can do to create the sustained environment that breeds innovation. The first thing is to ensure that the entire organization knows innovation is a priority and that every employee feels empowered to push the boundaries in any way they can. Innovation is the multiplier effect of many small things, not the result of one large bet. Only within an environment where innovation is encouraged at every level, and only when innovation happens in every aspect of a company, will something large breakthrough. And it is this breakthrough that alters the trajectory of your company. Chasing the big breakthrough in an environment not conducive to broad innovation is a futile effort guaranteed to result in frustration. Every innovative company you can think of has had a broad and democratized approach to innovation and every single one of them had far more misses than hits.
Remember, innovation is not the domain of a single person or department. It is not the domain of the R&D group, the product development group, or senior executives. Innovation comes from everywhere. It comes from people who deal with customers every day and know how things can be improved. It comes from people who build and sell products, serve and support customers, or from people who simply think of an unusual way to do things. Innovation comes from filling a need that may be stated or implicit. It can happen anywhere and at any time.
So instead of looking outside for inspiration, build a culture that encourages the bright people already working in your company to build inspirational products. The results will be remarkable.