Looking for Innovation? Focus on Your Existing Business First

So, while the quest for more radical innovation should not be neglected, organizations should not underestimate the impact that innovation in their core businesses can have on performance. While most leaders feel confident that their organizations are doing a good job improving the existing business, there often is far more potential to be unlocked.

To do so the way in which leaders create and manage initiatives to drive innovation is critical. The context for innovation in large organizations is fundamentally different than those in which small companies operate. To drive real growth, leaders must pursue innovation by creating conditions where innovation can thrive in the larger organizations, allowing them to tap into the full potential of the current business.

“An organization’s existing business generally offers a rich and often overlooked potential for innovation that significantly drives results.”

In our experience, an organization’s existing business generally offers a rich and often overlooked potential for innovation that significantly drives results. One of the most fertile areas is in how companies go to market. Opening new channels, finding ways to shorten sales cycles and working with customers in different ways, to name a few examples, all represent opportunities where strengthening innovation muscles can drive top line growth.

For instance, Nomacorc, a leading provider of closures for wine, recognized an opportunity to accelerate revenue by developing more innovative approaches to launching new products and penetrating major accounts. Teams were challenged with building these capabilities by significantly improving the company’s performance in both areas within 100 days.

“Game changing innovation doesn’t happen often,” said Jay Cummins, VP of Nomacorc’s Global Sales. “For us, providing focus in areas using our core technology and core systems is radical in itself. It’s digging your heels into what we’re all about, and then exploiting that in ways we hadn’t thought of before—or had thought of, but didn’t have the power to marshal resources, put a plan together or think about things in different ways.”

Creating the Conditions that Enable Successful Innovation
Startups get the headlines for big ideas and innovation, but they don’t own the concept. The key is recognizing that large, often complex organizations require a different approach. Our research has shown that leaders can significantly stack the odds for success in their favor by ensuring that teams charged with delivering on innovation operate under four conditions:

1. Constant energy. Innovation requires energy. Leaders can cultivate this energy in any size group by communicating a compelling vision, setting high expectations, staying engaged and making quick decisions. This creates urgency that taps into the intrinsic energy of teams, helping to stimulate their creativity and drive.

2. Creative friction. Productive conflict generates better ideas. Leaders can generate this creative friction by putting together interdisciplinary teams and setting up the space and communication channels where teams share, debate and exchange ideas, ideally face to face— and when conflict arises, making sure it is productive. These steps ensure an environment in which friction works toward a positive end instead of being destructive and isolating.

3. Flexible structure. Innovation efforts that are overly structured don’t yield results. Leaders need to emphasize goals and end results, and set boundary conditions rather than manage a fixed process and plan on how to get there. This helps empower teams to make better decisions and move more quickly to react to new insights and developments along the way. Encouraging a flexible structure, delegating authority and eliminating complexities in the corporate environment will go a long way toward achieving groundbreaking innovative results in even the largest and most bureaucratic organization.

4. Purposeful discovery. Proof-of-concept on the fly and rapid testing will trump endless months of planning. Leaders need to create an environment that encourages learning, in which failure is just another part of the path to success. Making ideas tangible by experimenting and iterating prototypes is the best way to navigate the ambiguous task of innovation. And putting the user and their needs first from the very beginning is the only way to get the selection criteria right.

Each of these conditions are interrelated, and all four must be present to increase the odds of successful innovation.

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Logan Chandler is a partner at Schaffer Consulting and author of Off-Sites That Work (Harvard Business Review). Markus Spiegel, a partner at Schaffer Consulting, has published insights from his consulting work and research in many formats including Forbes Media, Leader to Leader, Research in Organizational Change and Development and has spoken at several international conferences.

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