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Leading innovation and making ideas happen

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Success of innovation is generally associated with ideas. There is little doubt that ideas are core to innovation,  but we have also seen time and again that many good ideas and innovations lose their way — in fact only a small fraction eventually live up to the original promise.

Innovation is the talk of the industry. It is probably the most overused term in business today, and yet everyone has their own interpretation of what innovation means and how it can be introduced. The focus is mostly on idea generation — some emphasize on systemizing innovation processes while others look to instill innovation through specialized focus groups. Innovation is rarely measurable, and, disappointingly, it seems to have become an end in itself — it is no longer about transforming businesses, changing lives or creating a new world. Innovation seems to be losing its meaning.

In reality, innovation is not just about ideas — an idea is just the beginning of the innovation process, and the real work starts after that. This is not to say that defining the idea is not important — it is at the core of the innovation process, and the relevance of innovation is tied to its response to real problems and addressing the pain points.

However the potential of the idea needs to be deterministic and fully measurable — the path and the journey itself in most cases of true innovation would always be unknown. The difference between success and failure usually lies in how this unknown and uncharted journey is undertaken — how the idea is translated into a goal and (more importantly) the commitment that is made to take it forward.

And this is where leadership comes in and leaves its mark. For innovation to drive achievement, it cannot be simply built around creativity but has to be realized through careful planning, painstaking execution, constant vigilance, periodic adjustments and diligent pursuit. All examples of successful innovation have been driven by strong leaders who have been instrumental in changing the impact of various actions down the path of success. There is no better example than Steve Jobs — the ideas in themselves were not his own nor were these new inventions — it was the journey that made all the difference.

There is no doubt that the basic qualities of a good leader — such as clarity of goal, adaptability to change, swift and decisive action, calculated risk taking and the courage to override obstacles — are still important. But these form only the minimum requirements to drive innovation and are not necessarily sufficient to ensure successful impact. Leading innovation requires additional capabilities that help traverse the life cycle of change.

  1. Passion to make a difference; the inspiration to leave a lasting impact.
  2. Perseverance and courage to pursue, to keep going despite all odds and contradictions and to always look for alternatives.
  3. Conviction to challenge conventional wisdom, manage inertia and resistance to change.
  4. Focus to drive toward the goal by ignoring newer attractions and distractions, staying on course, constantly improving usability, simplifying the experience and using technology as a means and not as the goal.
  5. Pursuit of perfection and willingness to admit mistakes, change course even late in the game and strive always for the best possible.

We just need to look around to see how many innovations have been lost on the way — some have been stopped, others modified beyond recognition, while the majority have simply been replaced by newer initiatives. In most of these instances, it has rarely been the idea at fault, seldom a scarcity of resources — and mostly always a lack of conviction or a faltering commitment.

There is no doubt that success in innovation is far more influenced by leadership than any other element — even more than creative ideas, smart resources or unconventional out-of-the-box thinking.

About the author: Arti Khanna combines more than 23 years of technology and business experience in communications to look at emerging trends and incubate new initiatives in communications and applied verticals.