How to Be Innovative with Your Leadership: A Practical Guide

The key lies in answering just one question: How can I solve the right problem for the customer, in the right way?

“Innovation everywhere” is a mantra for many new-practice leaders, but how do you do it? Here is a look at some of the terms that are used, such as everyday innovation, “speedboats,” and hypothesis-driven activities, plus some practical advice to set up and drive within an innovation-oriented organization.

Move—Or Fade Away

In a business world that keeps changing, you need to constantly stay relevant to the market and customers. This requires “innovation everywhere,” both regarding products and processes, and culture and leadership. If you don’t keep moving, you’ll slowly fade away.

Clearly, this can instill a sense of anxiety or even paranoia in organizations; a feeling that either manifests itself through talent leaving the company or with a false positive understanding of the competitiveness. I’ve heard many leaders say: “We’re in good shape. We’ll keep the strategy we have and deliver the same product line as last year, only better, faster, and with more features. Our customers want more of the same. Let’s deliver that.”

Chances are, though, that you end in Red Ocean, that is, side-by-side with other similar companies competing on price, rather than in Blue Ocean competing on solving problems in a new way to create value for the customers.

Staying relevant in the future—both in Red and Blue Ocean—requires constant movement, curiosity, new thinking, new delivery channels, technology, and much, much more. You need to stay relevant, constantly. You need to be innovative, and the key lies in answering just one question:

How can I solve the right problem for the customer, in the right way?

Note that it’s not about products and price. It’s about problem solving and value creation. All your innovation focus and power must be directed toward this challenge, and innovation must be everywhere, and handled by everyone.

Innovation in the Modern Workplace

In the modern workplace, everyday innovation, “speedboats,” and hypothesis-driven activities are familiar terms.

Everyday innovation, or “innovation everywhere,” is a central way of thinking and is a part of the culture. Traditionally, innovation is considered to be something that happens in special, dedicated departments by special people with special skills. It’s associated with madly creative hipsters with beanbags and Post-it notes everywhere. In a modern organization, this alienation is replaced with curiosity, encouragement to test and experiment, and a drive for challenging the status quo, both with everyday production and strategic activities. Can we do it better? Can we do it differently? It’s the role of management to invite and allow experiments, and it’s the role of all leaders and employees to conduct the experiments and ensure progress. Creativity and innovation is nothing without progress.

Speaking of experiments: Sometimes you get an idea or see an opportunity that you have only a vague feeling about regarding feasibility. This is where “speedboats” come into play. A speedboat is a fast-moving unit that acts and turns faster and more vigorously than the super-tanker that the organization is. A speedboat has a small crew (two to six employees), a firm quest to seek (e.g., is it possible to use software to conduct weekly happiness measurements?), a timeframe (you have 10 days to investigate it), a learning objective (can we use the software to help our team leads succeed?), and freedom to act.

Often your innovation activities will seek to give better answers to known problems. This is called optimization or efficacy improvement. Sometimes you seek new answers to known problems. We’ll call this change-oriented innovation, propelled by lateral thinking. And once in a while, you seek new answers to new problems. This is where hypothesis-driven activities appear: We have a hypothesis that the customers have this problem, and that this solution will suit them. This is a fresh approach to innovation, one that requires a shift in maturity regarding decision-making, exploration eagerness, and skillful learning mechanisms: You form a hypothesis, a test, and a pretotype/prototype approach. The classic plan-do-check-act circle applies here, but with the major change that the cycle time is very low: You strive to get through the phases maybe within a week, as described in Google Sprint.

Two very central points for management in this approach are:

1. Y ou must encourage employees, colleagues, peers, and yourself to experiment, to challenge the existing, and to embrace changes when they surface. Too often I see managers decline or reject new solutions to existing problems because they are not change ready, or they were not part of the creation process.

2. You must be able to make decisions way earlier than you’re used to. Classically, you make a decision when you have the full overview and knowledge of all details. This has to change. As soon as you can see the outline and contour of a solution, you must be able to say, “Yes,” or “No,” or be willing to start a speedboat and an experiment.

Where Do You Start to Be Innovative with Your Leadership?

Stop requesting compelling business cases before initiating an activity. Look for business justification and good prototypes instead. “Let me see your running prototype” should replace “What payback time is there?”

Ask for an impact account as a supplement to a financial statement. You need to focus on the value-creation, as well as the economic health.

Make innovation everybody’s task and a part of all project and service deliveries. Make it a habit to ask: “Can we solve this problem in a new way?” and “Is there a new opportunity we have not exploited yet?”

Use a department day for training innovation and problem solving.

Set time aside in your own calendar to be curious, read articles on Twitter or LinkedIn, write blog posts about your findings, and share the ideas at meetings.

Most of all, to stay relevant, you must quit focusing on products. Look for problem solving instead. This keeps your focus on the customers’ arena.

Erik Korsvik Østergaard is a global thought leader, speaker, and author of “The Responsive Leader.” He is a partner at Bloch&Østergaard and holds an M.Sc. from the Technical University of Copenhagen with a thesis in chaos mathematics, and an EBA in cross-cultural project management. He is also a regular guest lecturer at Copenhagen Business School.

LID Publishing, Europe’s fifth largest publisher for business books, is giving away 10 free copies of Erik Korsvik Østergaard’s book, “The Responsive Leader,” to the first 10 readers who e-mail their names to (she will send out the books).

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