by Jose Hernandez

What’s in the DNA of an innovator?

Jul 30, 2019
InnovationIT Leadership

An innovation practice starts with a leader who can articulate the tangible value to the organization by cultivating key relationships, developing resiliency and understanding the financials, strategies, markets, products and consumers of the products and/or services.

dna abstract
Credit: Thinkstock

I recently took part in a fascinating lunch conversation focused on how to setup an innovation practice with a few local leaders. Within minutes of sitting at the table, the conversation naturally shifts from how to set up an innovation practice to the type of leadership required to establish it in the first place. It wasn’t until I was walking back to my office that I realized what had occurred. We had instinctively abandoned the original exploration of technology and process and invested the time in an element pivotal and critical to innovation – leadership.  

I think we can all agree there are no substitutes for leadership. In many ways, it can be the differentiator of good-to-great ideas. I offer ‘a’ DNA of an innovation leader. I’m placing importance on ‘a’ as one of many DNA sequences of an innovation leader, because it would be presumptuous to imply that there is a single archetype.

In my experience as an innovation leader of The Tech Nest, developing relationships, possessing business acumen, mastering your trade and harnessing a resilient mindset are key ingredients I believe are worth considering.

Develop relationships across the organization

Your relationship with your boss matters, but that’s not what this section is about. Think broader and explore the key relationships that we should all continuously develop throughout our organizations. There are always a handful of key individuals we should get to know better. Why? They can help us develop our trade and be better leaders with the knowledge they can share with us. Regardless of title or where they sit on an org chart, these are the influencers and the keepers of your organization’s culture. Invest in the occasional coffee break with those outside your immediate web of projects.

If you let them know that you are reaching out to learn more about what they do, you will find someone typically willing to share and help you be a better at what you do. Over time, two things will happen: you will have a better understanding of how your organization generates value and you’ll start to identify where you might be of service. The latter is a key ingredient to an innovation leader. Make a list of influencers in your organization and get to know them so you can have a richer understanding of the business.

Make it your business to know the business

The conclusion of the last section is a great lead in for this one. As an extension of the relationships you foster throughout the organization, you need to do your homework. With a focus on generating value for your firm as an innovation leader, you need to fundamentally know the business you are in. Make it your business to know how your organization captures value (i.e. revenue).

Beyond that, you should familiarize yourself with all aspects of your profit and loss (P&L), where it is forecasted to go and what if any challenges are there to attaining stated targets. Next, a fundamental understanding of cost drivers is key. Stepping away from the financials, a solid understanding of your products and the markets you serve are critical. A key part of influencing an organization to buy into an innovation practice is a fundamental belief in the acumen of the leader that leads the charge.

Lastly, you won’t achieve practical experience by sitting in your office back at headquarters. Take every opportunity to experience your business and all facets of its operations. From call centers, to product and service creation, to how the customer uses them. You would be surprised by how many functions are critical to customer success have never met a customer. You should be able to answer the question of how can I uncover external customer-based innovation opportunities?

Deliver like magic, but mind what’s below the waterline

To this point, I have focused the conversation on the organization and the relationships that affords opportunity to generate value for your firm. I’ll pivot and discuss mastery of your trade in the innovation space. An innovation leader must have a mastery of how to deliver. Opportunities to generate value are akin to serving up a warm plate, but without knowledge of how to set up a kitchen, develop a menu and so on, it won’t work. You must possess mastery of how to establish a lean delivery framework based on product management principles that allow you to deliver like magic.

Let’s explore my definition of mastery. I have always found that those with deep experience have the confidence to break things down to their core and simplify what’s complex. The bottom line is knowing the intricacies of large-scale product delivery processes but use that to be confident and agile enough to simplify in a way that delights those that engage. Put jut as much energy into developing these lean delivery frameworks, but don’t focus on leading with it. Lead with magic but be prepared to explain how it works. Remember, sales without substance never closes the deal. You should be able to answer the question of what experiences, and learning and development do I need to become a master of my trade in the innovation space?     

It happens to all of us, so be resilient

A key aspect of an innovation leader is feeling comfortable with doing something different that has not been done before or in a long time in your organization’s history. You might talk about doing things differently, which might be perceived as threats to existing lines of business. This will inevitably cause a reaction that manifests into resistance to change and innovation.

Why? Most established organizations focus ever increasing portions of their operations on cyclically squeezing efficiencies wherever possible. This can be a great, however, the delivery of disruptive technologies that have the potential to shake the current business model can cause the innovation leader to face resistance. How you react is a true test of resilient leadership.

When faced with these challenges, I have had two choices. The first is to dwell in cynicism, pitfalls and the lack of vision by those that resist the change. The second is to stay positive and find the opportunity to engage. Engage? Yes, engage with detractors, engage with influencers and engage with supporters. Above all, remain positive and take it as an opportunity to calibrate the messaging. You should be able to answer the question of am I a resilient leader?     

Building a rising innovation leader

A post that focuses on a DNA sequence of an innovation leader rather than the disruptive technologies that delivers the innovation may come as a surprise. In a lot of ways, the irony is that you have little hope of getting to that point if you can’t stand up a practice in the first place. Standing up that practice, in my experience, means articulating the tangible value that can be generated for the organization.

To do so, you have to know the people that make it work, the financials, the strategies, the markets, the products and ultimately the consumer of your products and/or services. Without these fundamentals, you might not have a chance to showcase what the technologies can do. I’ll leave you with the challenge to ask yourself: are you identifying opportunities to generate tangible value for the organization in a way that delights like magic?