Innovative Leadership

Mohamed Abdellatif shares his first encounter with innovation and leadership and his wisdom gained since then.

on the very first meeting with one of my managers early in my career; fueled with the immense excitement of my new promotion, I started off by showering him with a bunch of new ideas I wanted to bring to the business. He laid back into his seat and smiled, I can still hear the echos of his calm voice in my ears: “That’s great, prioritize and implement then keep me informed.”

Now here is your first lesson. When it comes to innovation, your ultimate role as a leader is to DRIVE innovation and not necessarily come up with new ideas yourself. You might be surprised that your best ideas could come from your team and not from your own head. Back then I did get the core idea of what he was hinting. I went back to my team and started listening to them before even proposing my own insights, yet I don’t think I comprehended the full meaning of my manager’s message all at once. Years passed and experience accumulated, and I continued to recall his valuable advice and appreciate the depth of that invaluable coaching moment. It resulted in developing my own philosophy on leading innovation around the acronym “DRIVE”.

Leaders are expected to D.R.I.V.E innovation:

D for define innovation!

Going back to the roots of the word; innovation is derived from the latin word “innovatus”; meaning “moving into the new”, which in itself clearly sets the stage for the broader meaning of innovation, releasing it from the conventional association with “inventions” to the broader realm of introducing renovation.

According to Peter Brabeck, the legendary x-CEO of Nestlé S.A, renovation is to change at least as fast as consumer expectations in order to keep pace with the industry, while, innovation is to leapfrog, to move faster and go beyond what consumers will tell you so you can maintain leadership position. When you hear this quote you might assume that innovation is more important in Nestlé. Actually for those who have worked in Nestlé, we all know the company takes both renovation and innovation on an equal footing of significance. You need both in order for you company to evolve and flourish.

Many leaders get obsessed by demanding big leaps and miss out on the little improvement steps. The reality is that companies could wait decades for a big, new breakthrough so the little steps are important to keep your firm competitive, day-in and day-out, with the industry. That’s why I personally prefer not to segregate the two definitions and rather always couple them whenever I teach “leading innovation” in my classes, I leave behind the technicality of definitions to the reader’s choice yet I urge every leader to recognize the broader perspective.

R as in risk for innovation!

In his attempt to encourage innovation Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, says, “Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.” Usually employees may hold back from innovation as they try not to mess up what is already working. The first step you need to do in order to motivate your team is to unhook those presumptions and encourage them to take the famous leap of faith by establishing a risk friendly environment. Easy to say yet hard to live up to; the moment you lose your patience, you will be sending out an irreversible signal that you don’t really mean it when you say you welcome risks, and there is no way back from that permanent crack.

Biting your tongue on failures has a bitter taste but there is a way you can control the damage; determine its acceptable scope from the start, like defining an error-allowance on each project, that’s what many entrepreneurs call “ taking an intelligent risk”. Along this you will have to put together a script manual of what to do if things get too far beyond that preset tolerable error zone. Sometimes you will need to have courage to pull the safety trigger and call the whole project off. An interesting story we always tell in this arena is the new-Coke down hill Classic-Coke up hill Coca Cola case study. A story that baby boomers and early x-generation marketers grew up learning. If you have missed out on it, I really encourage you to check it out.

I for identify good ideas!

Awaiting one good idea to come across is like looking for a mountain diamond in a river of mud. You roll your fingers in the dirt endlessly for the hope of that moment of striking gold. The only trouble is that the ‘diamonds’ can easily get overlooked.

Look out for those odd opinions in office meetings, unusual bold proposals or things that have never been tried before. As a leader you have to train yourself how to spot the uncut diamonds. Unfortunately there is no prescription to follow; you will have to trust your instinct on that. Trial and error is inevitable but if you pay enough attention long enough you will develop your own intuition in detecting the genotype of brilliance.

V as in validating for what is important!

As you expand the definition and continue to encourage innovation there is only one caveat: many good initiatives will actually be presented to you and then you and your team will have to make choices. This doesn’t mean filtering good ideas from bad ones, we already addressed that with the previous section; this is the time when you may have to turn down good ideas as well. As a leader you are expected to ensure your teams are focused on what matters for your organization purpose, so it is not in the number of changes you work on but really the quality those changes can bring to the consumers.

There is no better way to outline the importance of driving focus in innovation than what Tim Cook, Apple CEO, once said in an interview with FastCompany: “The priorities are about saying no to a bunch of great ideas. We can do more things than we used to do because we’re a bit bigger. But in the scheme of things versus our revenue, we’re doing very few things. You could put every product we’re making on this table, I doubt anybody that is anywhere near our revenue could say that.”

E for embedding innovation in your organization!

This section has to do with the practices you, as a leader should introduce to your organization in order to ensure innovation is an embedded way of woking in your firm. Senior leaders need to inject teams with members who are guaranteed to vocalize their opinions and challenge status quo within different silos and tear down walls when necessary; whilst middle managers should refrain from hiring their own copies but rather aim for diversity of backgrounds and mindsets. Julie Sweet, CEO - North America; said, “There is a very genuine belief that without diversity of thought, companies can't innovate”.

Secondly you will need to ensure innovation is properly recognized, design proper systems that appreciate both day-to-day renovation ideas and are flexible enough to provide outstanding rewards for unusual breakthroughs. Celebrate when those breakthroughs happen, make it visible to everyone, to motivate others to join the league. This is critically important since by default in the revenues-driven corporate world we all get too worried about quarterly and annual objectives, while if you look at true innovations some could need years in order to materialize and lead to fruition.

Rewarding innovation will ensure it doesn’t get crushed under the wheels of chasing quotas. Not to mention this is not a league of creativity so make sure you reward execution rather than just rewarding good ideas, even if the final product is far from reality, still you can reward steps achieved on ground in the pursuit of the final output. Execution is the last stage of embedding innovation, when people see ideas implemented they will no doubt believe this is a truly inviting environment for innovation.

Finally, to describe someone as innovative, is it a skill or an attitude?

I had a great chance of joining hundreds of interviewing panels recruiting for marketers and key management positions where innovation was key to the role. I remember how hiring panel members occasionally argued whether innovation is a skill that candidates could inherit or is it an attitude that can be explored within the day-to-day behaviors.

Believing in the broader perspective of innovation, the side of argument for attitude always won. If a certain person is innovative, he or she will always seek for improvements whether it is obviously demanded or when everyone overlooks it. There is no magic traffic signal that will let people know when it is time to innovate, those ‘innovative-by-nature’ professionals will always be ready to grasp the opportunity as it flies by. As Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon once said; “My view is there is no bad time to innovate”.

Speaking of attitude, one last attribute that was always helpful in recruitment was looking for innovative people who can work in teams; as Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix advises: “Do not tolerate brilliant jerks, the cost to teamwork is too high”.

Mohamed has worked widely across the MENA region for the past 18 years. He is a pharmacist with experience of working as a senior executive for multinationals. The last position held was Country Business Manager at Nestlé. He is currently working as a freelancer consultant, whilst managing his own private business, as well as pursuing a Masters Degree in Physics and teaching at AUC

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