So, Who Wants to Be An Innovator?

Written by Hilton Barbour

Back when I started my career (or when dinosaurs ruled the earth) there was a very different perspective of innovation and innovators.

Innovators were an elite group of secret, almost mythical creatures toiling away in labs far from the prying eyes of competitors, or even colleagues, without a C-suite designation. As a lowly advertising guy, I never saw these folks until they unveiled the fruits of “Project Thunderstruck” to the client. Another sign o’ the times—innovation projects weren’t funded unless they had some kind of quasi-military-superhero name.

That’s all changed.

Today, every corporate press release, LinkedIn profile and company blog uses innovation, innovative, and/or innovator in every second sentence.

The perceived norm for innovation has moved from top-secret skunkworks to open and crowd-sourced, from the company-knows-best model to a consumer-collaborative one. Today all your employees are expected to be innovation engines and storied organizations like NASA actually want us, the general public, to weigh-in on their projects.

However does all this innovation talk really reflect a true sense of the market? Has innovation, like other popular phrases such as “creativity” and “follow your passion,” really seeped into the bloodstream of organizations?

Determine your real appetite for innovation and consider these six Uncommon Sense questions for fueling innovation.

1. Do you have a well-understood definition and expectation for innovation?

Innovation, like strategy, is an amorphously defined word by many executives. Are you looking for “big I” Innovation that will redefine your business and category or “little i” innovation where you’re polishing and refining processes, products and services incrementally? Simplistic as it may seem, if there isn’t a universally understood definition of what innovation in your company or category means, how can you expect your people to know what’s innovative or not—and then act accordingly?

2. Do you have a culture that’s conducive to innovations and innovators?

I’m not talking the trappings of innovative or creative workplaces like beanbags, open concept offices and bring-your-dog-to-work-Fridays but a real cultural environment to foster innovation. Are your employees encouraged to tinker, play, build, and question? Is that tinkering, playing, building and questioning deliberate, unexpected or unstructured? Do you have a process or framework that purposefully moves innovation from ideation to development and deployment? If you’re really committed to innovation, it requires deliberation and purpose. Innovation happenstance makes for great scenes in a movie—not in the workplace.

3. Do you consider innovation your best opportunity for growth?

Many folks (much smarter than me) working in innovation consultancies tell me that a lot of executives pay lip-service to innovation because they’re still obsessed with maximizing efficiencies and reducing operating costs—and when those have been maximized, going out and buying another company as the engine for future growth. These are important, even necessary, pursuits but they really only make your current organization more efficient—they don’t catalyze your organization to be more effective. If you genuinely buy into the potential of innovation, you’re looking for ways to put jet fuel in the engine of your organization, not ways to make the windscreen and hubcaps shinier.

4. Are you actively and broadly sweeping for innovation impacting your business?

We’ve all read about Kodak, with an employee base of over a hundred thousand, being disrupted by Instagram with less than twenty employees. A spectacular story and a genuine cautionary tale, but the story has a direct correlation to your commitment to innovation too. If you’re genuinely committed to innovation, you’re deliberately and diligently seeking out innovative examples to watch, mimic or outright copy. If you’re not, I can guarantee your competition is. The flip of innovation as a growth engine is innovation as an engine for your demise.

5. Do you accept that innovation will disrupt your organization?

Innovation is scary. It means doing new things, with new people, new frameworks, all for the first time. It’s also not 100% guaranteed to succeed. That’s enough to test the mettle of the bravest CEO. All sturm und drang aside, consultancies like Bulldog Drummond, IDEO and Idea Couture have well-defined processes and experience traversing clients through those bumpy waters. But, trust me, it will be choppy and disruptive. If the thought of that disruption causes a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach, I’d suggest you’re not really ready.

6. Have you set aside budget and accountability for innovation in your company?

This is such a fundamental question, perhaps I should’ve started here. You’re not really into innovation unless you have genuinely set aside real budgets and accountability for it. And not innovation as an intellectual “what if” exercise, but as a demonstrable contributor to the company. Is there P&L attached to your innovation or have you merely added the word “innovation” to someone’s existing job description? If there’s no skin in the game or someone’s feet aren’t to the fire to deliver, then, mixed metaphors aside, innovation is a pet project, or worse, a distraction to your business.

As this wonderful article in The Atlantic suggests, innovation has a complicated, sometimes bloody history. However as the word, and all the accompanying descriptors, becomes more widely used, I think it is critical that each organization puts a stake in the ground.

Is innovation a real imperative for your company or merely the latest bright, shiny object?

I’d love your thoughts and feedback. Are there other determinants of companies truly committed to innovation? Sound off, folks.

Hilton Barbour, Freelance Strategist & Marketing Provocateur. Hilton’s has lead global assignments ranging from Coca-Cola, IBM, Motorola and Enron to Ernst&Young and Nokia. Working as a freelance strategist allows him to satisfy his insatiable curiosity about business, people and trends. An avid blogger, Hilton’s personal mantra is “Question Everything”. Follow him at @ZimHilton.


2 Responses to So, Who Wants to Be An Innovator?

  1. terri harel says:

    Hi there!

    Great post – especially love point 2! I love all the the continuing conversation around innovation. Although I’ve always been passionate about “innovation,” chasing new ideas or reading about creative products, processes and the like, Jane Lepore’s “The Disruption Machine,” published just a few days after this blog, was a real jolt. ( All the subsequent response has really set a off a much-needed discussion about what “innovation” actually means and is, and whether “disruption” has become so diluted it now only serves as a new-order machine that simply swallows out the competition in the name of progress. Interesting stuff.

  2. terri harel says:

    *correction I meant “The Disruption Machine,” published just a few days after *The Atlantic article :)

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