Innovation is not simply the generation of breakthrough ideas. It is change that has added value. It’s a job done, where the benefits to customers, stakeholders, and owners alike should be clear and unmistakeable. Of course, at the beginning of the innovation process, such an outcome is desired, but never quite so clear. Given the risks involved in investing in innovation, and the potential for distraction from delivery of short-term results, many CEOs wholeheartedly agree that it must be on the agenda — for next year.

The combination of rapid changes in societal values, demographics, energy supply and demand, and exponential progress across the entire technology landscape, means that CEOs need to flip this attitude.

Their aim must be to get to the point where they are deftly applying well-designed brakes to a powerful innovation machine, rather than wondering how to find space, time and resources to make innovation possible.

The CEOs already in this enviable position — at Apple, Google, Tesla, Atlassian, for example — are clearly visible, due to the significant innovation premium contained in their share price, while others fail to attract such investor faith in their future.

Lessons learned

Building an innovation engine, and accelerating its outputs to market, is a daunting task. Working with innovation leaders like Imagination, Arup, and Fujitsu globally, I can offer some key lessons learned from the frontline of the battle for sustained innovation success:

Strategic ambition

Innovation must be pursued against a winning ambition. You need a strategic cause and compelling objective to engage and energise your team, powering ideas through to successful implementation and overcoming the trials and tribulations in between. CEOs and leadership teams must communicate this overarching ambition  in a credible and compelling story that people right across the organisation can step into and become co-authors of.

Co-creation with customers and partners

Don’t imagine you have all the answers in the executive boardroom, or within the organisation as a whole. Use the wisdom of your wider circle of key customers and business partners.

Engines need fuel and oil

Fuel, in the form of dedicated time, resources, and space, plus oil as in the innovator’s mindset and cultural settings, are required to accelerate the workings of your innovation engine. If innovation is being pursued on a starvation diet, essentially as a moonlighting activity, it cannot be sustained. Likewise, if innovative thinking is being shared in a culture that is toxic to new ideas, no amount of courage on the part of a few can convince the many who are comfortable with business as usual. CEOs must dedicate management time and attention, key talent and financial resources to the innovation effort, and build a culture where people share a relentless discomfort with the status quo.

Innovation tools and methods

Setting up the right strategic context, leadership, and organisational culture for innovation are critical. Yet there remains the important job of building innovation capability. This is about mindsets as much as muscle; about skills as well as systems and processes. Over the years we have witnessed an accumulation of innovation tools and methods that can help get the job done without placing too much reliance on having geniuses in our midst:

Design thinking

Anchored in a deep understanding of the customer’s rational, emotional, and physical needs and wants, design thinking is a creative process, combining logic and dialogue, and shifting gear from divergent to convergent thinking. As much as possible, we aim to have a wide range of ages, mindsets, cultural backgrounds, and life experience in the room. Its tools and methods can be employed in individual conversations to shift perspectives, in workshops to create breakthrough ideas, and as a strategic discipline to drive innovation.

Lean Start-up

Eric Ries’ wildly popular and effective approach has been keenly adapted by larger corporations as a companion approach to design thinking. Its tools and methods are a great antidote to the risk-averse and bureaucratic habits of traditional business-case development, focusing instead on delivering a minimum viable product and learning through doing. Combined with a more open innovation approach, it can enable otherwise inwardly-focused organisations to harness the wisdom of its ecosystem.

Virtual collaboration tools

Slack, Confluence, Google Docs, OneDrive — all have their place in a world where team geography has been largely erased, and we want to have multiple people working in parallel on multiple tasks yet sharing an overarching context and strategic objective.

Agile/DevOps

DevOps encourages developers and IT operations staff to work closely together on software projects from inception through to launch, pooling their skills and experience so that they can anticipate and pre-empt delays before they arise. Close collaboration also means shorter feedback loops, so unanticipated issues are dealt with more promptly. High speed/low risk software delivery is a tricky dilemma, but DevOps enables us to achieve controlled velocity.

I believe it’s high time for CEOs to press hard for the rewards of innovation acceleration, rather than risk cruising in the incremental improvement ‘slow lane’ until next year.