Not so long ago we associated innovation exclusively with brilliant people or organizations that had the resources to fund extensive research. An innovation meant producing a novel product or service – something differentiated and not easily replicated or improved. But, as we have learned by observing “why companies fail”, without innovation, your organization dies. So every organization, not just the smart or rich, must find ways to innovate and differentiate. The big challenge for you as a leader is getting yours to deliver innovation.
If you’re not differentiating, all you’re doing is improving something, not innovating.
Take a look at the greatest minds or business innovators of all time; Einstein, Martin Luther King Jr., Steve Jobs, John Lennon etc. they have one thing in common – in their respective times they have thought, acted and communicated in a way that’s similar to one another, but radically different to everyone else of the time. They were different, and they understood what made them different.
This is a simple but logical thread that visionary thinker, Simon Sinek, pulled together a few years ago in a TED Talk. To innovate in any field, you have to be a leader who understands how to inspire people; be it for political change, to get customers to buy a new product or service, or to keep your employees happy.
The law of diffusion of innovation states the first 2.5% of our population are our innovators – that’s it. And the majority of people won’t try something new unless someone else has tried it first. People are cynical, especially when jargon and product information is just thrown at them.
So how do you get them contributing?
Well Sinek defines a ‘Golden Circle’ of sorts which can be applied to leadership as well as true innovation. The circle has three layers – Outer, Inner and Core:
- The Outer layer is the ‘what’. So if you’re in business, this relates to your products and services. Most people can describe ‘what’ they do and want to sell.
- The Inner layer is the ‘how’. This represents the manner in which you plan on achieving your objectives, through a well crafted strategy and a sound business model. Some people are familiar with their ‘how’, they can tell you how they intend to deliver the goods or services defined as their ‘what’.
- The Core relates to the ‘why’. This is the key part of the circle that most people or businesses don’t understand or convey. It’s got nothing to do with result or profit margins, but it’s about your cause or drive. ‘Why’ you’re doing this.
Now here’s the big difference between innovation and simple improvement…
Most people and businesses start their strategy and brand communication with the outer layer or ‘what’. But because customers and your competitors are always changing, the ‘what’ has to always change. And, because ‘what’ changes, ‘how’ has to change to reflect it. So a strategy built on ‘what’ and/or ‘how’ will only get you so far, before it’s eclipsed by something better.
The lesson that can be learned from the greatest innovators is to start communication with the ‘why’. Only then do they radiate outward to the ‘what’ and ‘how’. Take Martin Luther King Jr., for example, he was just a man who told people the dream he had. He didn’t make a speech about the things that were wrong (what) or the plan he had to change them (how) – he inspired people by first showing them his different core. Sure it challenges the status quo to be innovative, but once you’ve captured the attention of like-minded people because of your distinct ‘why’ and unique selling proposition, they will buy why you do what you do. Once they embrace your ‘why’, innovation becomes easier, because they are not wedded to the limited constructs of your existing ‘what’ and ‘how’.
So finally here are a few quick tips to help you gear-up the differentiating (Innovation) process on your end:
- Why – get your people to understand ‘why’ you are in business. It is more important for your survival than they know what you sell or how you deliver. The what and how are easier once they understand the why, and they will produce greater innovation when they have a compelling reason.
- Focus – make sure that you are investing your innovation dollars in differentiating solutions (not just improving), and in a way that customers want. Remember, customer valued innovation does not guarantee survivial, but it sure improves the likelihood.
- Partner – multiply your efforts by finding and leveraging partners who can share your passion. Wise partnerships can be valuable by increasing your reach, filling in missing capabilities, and when they are emotionally attracted to your ‘why’, your partners will deliver their innovations to you first, resulting in competitive advantages.