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Executive Insight: Your Success Is Killing Innovation – Here’s 3 Ways To Change That

It's not enough to simply operate your business. You need to innovate, too

Illustration by z_wei/Getty Images

Congratulations! You worked hard, climbed the ranks, and now you are unquestionably, a successful executive. When it comes to operating your business, you know what to do, you have answers to most questions, and very little surprises you anymore.

That’s a problem.

If you, like most leaders, want to grow your business instead of just maintaining it (and maybe even evolving it based on market dynamics, competition, or other pressures), it’s not enough to simply operate your business. You need to innovate, too.

Operation and Innovation are both business imperatives, and, as a leader, you need to manage both. The challenge, however, is that the knowledge, skills, and behaviors required to be a successful operator often spell doom for innovation.

Innovation probably isn’t what you think it is

Robyn Bolton, Founder and Chief-Navigator of MileZero

Before we go further, let’s define “innovation,” a buzzword that has become almost meaningless, as something new that creates value.

“Something” could be a product, or a service, process, revenue model, business model, or many other things. “New” could be new to the world, or new to your industry, company, function, or team. Finally, “value” could be measured by dollars and cents, and it could be greater customer or employee loyalty, faster or easier-to-use products, or other benefits.

Why Operating and Innovating are so different

When operating your existing business and tackling known problems, you know much more than you don’t. You’re in what Rita McGrath, a professor at Columbia Business School, calls a High Knowledge – Low Assumption environment.

But, when you’re innovating, doing something new that creates value, you are in a Low Knowledge – High Assumption environment. You don’t know more than you do know.

Being in a Low Knowledge – High Assumption environment is incredibly uncomfortable. As a result, most businesspeople try to ignore their discomfort and hide their uncertainty by relying on past data, using traditional heuristics about cause and effect, and making quick decisions often followed by significant investments.

It’s precisely this approach that leads to expensive and public failures like Microsoft’s Zune, Sony Betamax, and the Blackberry Storm.

How to Change Your Approach to Innovation

  1. Bring questions, not answers: When leading operations, you have the expertise to quickly evaluate options to arrive at the best solution. When you’re innovating, you’re doing something new, which means you need to learn quickly. One of the fastest ways to learn is to ask questions. This can be a hard habit to build, so my advice is to start by making the first thing you say a question, for example, what do you recommend, how confident are you, or why do you believe that to be true?
  2. Participate, don’t evaluate: As an executive, you have more experience than the people reporting to you, so you have a greater wealth of information and data to pull from as you consider options and make decisions. This isn’t true in innovation, where you have the same or less experience in the new space as the team working in it. So, get that experience by participating in the team’s work. For example, leave the office and talk to customers (or listen as your team talks to them), use a competitive offering, or spend time watching people use your offerings. You’ll learn significantly more by participating than by reading a report.
  3. Make time and keep commitments: The Tyranny of Now, that feeling that whatever is urgent is also essential, is natural and, if you let it, it will always crowd out time needed for innovation. As productivity researcher Laura Vanderkam explains in her TED Talk, “I don’t have time” means “It’s not a priority.” So, if innovation is truly a priority, make time for it, at least 1 hour a week, and resist the urge to reschedule to a “better” time.

Great Leaders Learn to Operate and Innovate

Changing your approach based on whether you’re in a High Knowledge (operating) or High Assumption (innovating) environment is not instinctive and can be challenging. But great leaders are aware of the need to do so, practice little behavior changes to build a habit, and ultimately reap the rewards of a successful business today and in the long term.

About the Author
Robyn M. Bolton is the Founder and Chief-Navigator of MileZero, an innovation consultancy that helps leaders of medium and large businesses to navigate the uncertainty of innovation to confidently grow their business. She previously worked at Innosight, the innovation and strategy consulting firm founded by Clayton Christensen, The Boston Consulting Group, and Procter & Gamble where she was on the team that developed and launched Swiffer. She has an MBA from Harvard Business School and a BS in Marketing cum laude with University Honors from Miami University (OH).

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