When talking with people in corporate innovation or strategy, I commonly hear their frustrations with leadership and corporate structures that are too conservative, or risk-averse. That frustration commonly transforms to, “My company just does not support innovation.” This frustration is why I think an innovator’s first task should always be to dissect their environment, set a baseline for the realities of innovation and identify the obstacles in their path.
That said, if you are in charge or assigned to innovation in your company, I would ask one critical question: do you have the risk tolerance (and passion) to be an innovator in your company?
In an ideal world, innovation is a naturally occurring phenomenon in your company and would happen without additional support. In reality, corporations are built to deliver reliable results, which may cause pressure on the type of new and innovative thinking which disrupts established norms. For this reason, CEOs take a number of approaches to allocate innovation talent and task certain departments with innovation, or create a unique function with this charge.
On a fundamental level, an innovator’s role should be to force the enterprise to consider opportunities out of the normal risk profile of the company or to establish processes to help the company routinely explore new growth tangents. This requires expansive thinking to push the boundaries of the organization. As I have mentioned in a prior article, innovation in a company is about delivering change and that requires some level of (career) risk.
Let’s explore this from the perspective of entrepreneurs and startups. Many corporate leaders are challenging their organizations to be more entrepreneurial and think like startups to fuel innovation. The terms intrapreneur or enterprise entrepreneur have become more common within the hallways of some of the largest, most traditional companies.
We often like to think successful entrepreneurs take blind risk and overcome it through sheer force of will. In truth, top founders have a great ability to face into risk and mitigate or deal with it, typically putting risk in context of the greater market opportunity. Most importantly, top entrepreneurs also have a relentless passion for their business, which leads to sleepless nights and creative solutions to take on risks, solve problems and make money. A successful corporate innovator needs to adapt these attributes into a corporate environment.
Do you have the ability to take on risks like a corporate innovator? Here are some traits that you should possess:
- It is critical that you have a deep-rooted belief in your company vision. Not only do you need to believe in this, you are a chief enabler of the vision as you seek new ways for the company to grow in the context of its vision.
- Do not fear conflict (including with your leadership.) This is not about conflict for the sake of conflict but all about know how to push boundaries and pushing the organization (and its people) out of its comfort zone. You need to be a contrarian at times and not fear debate. A big part of innovation jobs is to help the company get out of its own way as it explores new opportunities that are outside of the norm.
- Have conviction about your purpose and the programs you are leading. You are the chief advocate for your innovation program and need to be prepared for the obstacles that presents. Creativity in innovation is not just about idea creation but also about how you solve the problems that arise. This conviction requires persistence.
- Career confidence could be one of the more difficult attributes to possess and has greater importance the more senior you are in the company. Your belief in what you do should fuel your actions and ultimately reward your career. If you reverse that then every action is about job preservation and not about enabling your initiative. This leads to shortsighted, “safe” decisions instead of taking some risk for what is right.
- Infectious passion! This trait is one that some of the best entrepreneurs have that helps attract investors and customers and motivate employees. The passion about their idea is so great that it gives others confidence that they will be successful due to their belief and drive in their business. That same energy is needed when ideas are born and incubated in a corporation in order to maintain the momentum to navigate the organizational waters.
It is always important to execute your role with balance and context. As I discussed before, you need to understand your environment, then adapt your pace and intensity relative to what the company can absorb and in context to where it needs to be. That said, to be successful as a corporate innovator or strategist that is driving change to accelerate your company vision, you need to embrace and be comfortable with the attributes above.
You are the tip of the sword and that will create a sense of risk for you. To be successful, embrace risk and let your passion help overcome obstacles as you get your company out of its comfort zone and accelerate its growth.