5 Practical Lessons from Innovation Leaders You Can Apply Today

Over the next five years, the consumer packaged goods (CPG) business sector will likely have more category, product and brand performance fluctuation than we’ve seen over the last 20.

innovation and growthConsider that today, as Cambridge Group Partner Eddie Yoon has discussed, that a mere 1% of CPG brands capture upwards of 80% of category growth, according to Eddie Yoon, partner of Cambridge Group. That is a staggering statistic, and one that is likely to face more pressure in the years ahead.

Few would argue the reality of this unprecedented change, and fewer still would argue that the latitude for missteps has never been narrower. What then do we need to do to navigate in such an environment? We need breakthrough leadership, plain and simple.

In the most recent Nielsen Breakthrough Innovation study, executives at The Cambridge Group and Nielsen scoured more than 3,500 consumer products that were introduced to the U.S. market in 2014 to identify and honor the brands that broke through the crowd and demonstrated success unprecedented among a chaotic marketing environment. The 18 winning brands (and their fearless leaders) were able to achieve greatness against metrics that require distinctiveness, relevance and endurance in a congested CPG marketplace, delivering products that seamlessly address consumers’ day-to-day challenges.

“We publicly acknowledged our status as ‘worst’ and simultaneously committed ourselves to becoming first. President Tony Vernon didn’t just proclaim and delegate; he showed up, literally.”

Given the pressing importance and impact of breakthrough leadership in realizing these successes, the team chose to make that the focus of the study this year. From their experiences and perseverance, we are able to glean 5 practical lessons that executives can quickly deploy for the benefit of their own business today.

1. Be present. Leaders who expect breakthrough innovation and growth need to show up and roll up their sleeves. Sustained, profitable growth depends on it. As Barry Calpino, VP, Innovation Hothouse at Mondelēz International recounts, “I think a lot of people in our industry are accustomed to hearing senior executives extol the importance of game-changing innovation. We publicly acknowledged our status as ‘worst’ and simultaneously committed ourselves to becoming first. President Tony Vernon didn’t just proclaim and delegate; he showed up, literally.” It’s not a shocking revelation, but in an environment where leaders are being pulled in countless directions at once, being a visible and vocal anchor to the importance of breakthrough innovation will be a game changer.

2. Become the voice. Calpino continues, “By being there, being engaged and constantly playing the role of the instigator to think bigger and make ideas sharper, Tony sent a powerful signal to the organization that innovation mattered, that big bets were important, that boldness was rewarded and championed.” The same truths have been echoed at AB InBev, Big Heart Pet Brands and more, that unless incentives are aligned, and executives clearly support innovation ‘explorers’, then those explorers will be a rare breed. Blockbusters need senior support, and oftentimes the initiatives that have the potential to become blockbusters run counter to every entrenched organizational norm and short-term economic incentive. This often leads to a lack of clear executive support, leaving these would-be blockbusters to waste away. Become the voice of ‘yes.’ If managers anticipate a senior champion, they will be motivated to strive (and attain) greatness.

3. Be intentional—learn voraciously. Even in the best of environments, not all innovations will be unbridled successes. What happens too frequently, however, is that while the successes are analyzed to uncover opportunities to repeat success, no one looks at the failures, and what could be learned from them. Learning lessons from as many places as possible brings continuous improvement, and successful innovators study their own launches (successful and otherwise), competitive launches and benchmark outside the core category to apply the lessons learned.

At SC Johnson, Calpino spearheaded a project in which marketing, R&D managers and senior execs were divided into three cross-functional teams to analyze decision making, resource allocation, team composition, insight generation and other key variables related to three discrete sample sets. What they found was that “Every success…had an active senior-executive champion. There were no exceptions to this find across all three of the study sets”…(internal launches, competitive launches, and benchmarks outside the category).

4. Be creative: Defy category constraints and conventions. Category Creators are companies that bring to market breakthrough products, breakthrough business model innovations, or both, which fundamentally ‘create’ new categories and break open the gates to new growth opportunities. Big ideas such as these cross disciplines and bring together seemingly disparate fields and areas of focus. If senior leaders expect their organizations to seek, develop and commercialize deeply creative ideas that challenge the status quo, then these same senior leaders need to be at the forefront of pushing boundaries, bringing outside perspectives into the company, challenging assumptions and cultivating a playfulness that fuels imagination.

5. Be vigilant. A word of caution from Calpino as we leave you with the last lesson: “Throughout my career and during my time at Kraft, I’ve seen the engagement and commitment of senior leadership ebb and flow—even the best ones. There are so many other ‘more urgent’ and burning issues, and therein lays a huge challenge. It is always, always hard work requiring senior engagement and commitment. The truth is, I’ve learned that you have to be relentlessly vigilant, or hard-earned capabilities will quickly atrophy, and bad habits reassert themselves.” We couldn’t have said it better ourselves, but cannot underscore enough the importance of what Calpino recounts.

For those of us in consumer products, there is a challenge ahead, no doubt. But begin with these 5 key lessons, or, reminders, from breakthrough leaders to create a culture that embraces innovation and they will separate you from the rest of the pack and keep you out in front.


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