7 tips for unleashing innovation in an established organization

Innovation is an essential skill—one that sets great leaders apart from good ones. And it isn’t just for startups. Even the most seasoned business is sitting on untapped opportunities. But unlike startup entrepreneurs, leaders of established organizations face a powerful enemy: the status quo.

An established business model can be a blessing. It furnishes a solid foundation from which to innovate: a steady fiscal base, administrative support, ready expertise, and in some cases a privileged onramp into a new market space.

But the blessing is also a curse, because like a massive astronomical body, an established business possesses potent forces of gravity and inertia that relentlessly urge a return to old ways of thinking and doing.

Whether your established business model is thriving or struggling, innovation—even transformation—should be a regular part of doing business. Here are seven ways to combat the forces working against you and break free from the status quo.

1. Establish a separate, distinctive identity.

Identity is a sense of who an organization is, and it matters because in a fast moving environment most decisions are made not by logic but by instinct. Without a distinctive identity no innovation effort—small or grand—will be able to achieve escape velocity and break free from the gravity of the status quo.

At a bare minimum, a fresh identity calls for a distinctive name, dedicated time and space in which to operate, a bold mission, and a compelling story.

2. Get used to discomfort.

It is easier to fiddle with an existing business model than to make a bold leap into the unknown. And yet, fear of the unknown is seldom what traps leaders in a cycle of mediocrity. A much more insidious culprit is at work: the pursuit of better is unremittingly uncomfortable.

Unfamiliarity, confusion, stress, shifting expectations, and a punishing learning curve take their toll. The key to bold leaps is not bravado. It is willingness for the long slog.

3. Stir it up.

Seasoned executives know how to provide experienced guidance. But leadership in the innovation space has more to do with challenging convention. As a leader, if you see something you’ve seen before, readily understand, or feel comfortable with, that’s a sign that it’s time to stir it up.

Questions that begin with “How could we…” and end with a challenge to push the limits or find alternatives are especially useful.

4. Hire new people for new jobs.

Innovating often means creating a new organizational structure with new positions to fill. But think twice before transferring your current people into these new positions. They will bring legacy thinking with them.

It can be especially tempting to transfer current staff when you would otherwise let them go due to a failing business model. But you won’t be doing them any favors if your new business model fails also. In these situations, consider offering severance packages commensurate with your gratitude and moving on.

And if you are attempting to transform your business model, be wary of hiring from within your current industry.

5. Don’t be a builder.

Builders create a structure from blueprints. But unlike builders, innovative leaders cannot possibly know exactly what they will create before they begin, much less how they will create it.

The problem is that plans are sexy. Even a deeply flawed plan rife with false assumptions and wildly inaccurate timelines possesses a beguiling beauty—and many a conscientious leader has executed such a plan to perfection, with predictable results.

Innovation calls for a vision, not a plan. Be agile and learn as you go.

6. Do be a farmer.

Crops cannot be made to grow by sheer force of will. They must be nurtured and allowed to mature at their natural pace—which is why farming requires tremendous patience. So too with innovation. Change takes time—especially when it involves people or unfamiliar ideas.

That’s not to say patience should be limitless. The time may come to plow it all under. It helps to have some sense of what to expect. One leader in the software industry commented that in his experience nothing worthwhile can be done in fewer than six months, and nothing worthwhile can’t be done within two years. Every industry and opportunity is different.

7. Lead, don’t manage.

Innovation can’t easily be managed, because exploring and experimenting are inherently unpredictable. In the innovation space, the role of a leader is just that—leadership. Rather than managing methods, a leader sets direction, keeps her eye on the big picture, rallies people, champions the cause, and clears a path.

• • •

Innovation is in many ways more difficult for established organizations than for startups. But using these seven strategies, leaders of mature businesses can counteract the forces working against them to improve or even transform their organizations.


Sign up for our newswire—PeopleCraft—and get articles like this one, plus useful tools and resources.