There are two further critical pieces to consider: organizational culture, and the role of leaders. Clarke notes that clients often approach him and talk about their fear of failure, yet this is not a human condition. When a child walks for the first time, they are not afraid to fall.
“What we’re afraid of is blame and ridicule,” Clarke says. “We’re afraid of being accused of screwing up. It’s not the failure that we have a problem with; it’s the way people respond to us having tried to do something new and it didn’t go exactly the way we thought it would.”
Clarke’s recommendation to organizations is to get past the narrow definition of ‘failure’.
“We use the word failure to describe a range of things. Let’s imagine I’m a pilot and I didn’t put the wheels down when I landed the plane because I was too busy texting. That’s a failure, a potentially very serious failure. We shouldn’t be using the same words when describing, ‘Well, John wanted to try something new and it didn’t work quite the way we thought it would work’. I don’t think John should be punished for trying something new, because he could potentially figure out the way forward for the rest of us.”
The most important contribution leaders can make is their influence on culture, one that fosters innovation. A leader’s job is not necessarily to be the innovator – you don’t have to be the genius; you have to find the genius. Richard Branson is the prime example of this. Virgin consists of around 250 companies. Branson didn’t come up with every single idea within those companies. But he’ll be the guy who had the idea, or the guy who supports the guy who had the idea, or the guy who turns up at the launch and makes a big fuss about the guy who had the great idea. He’s quite happy to put his ego aside and step back and let other people step forward.
“That’s the hardest challenge for leaders – they get excited about being a leader and their egos get too big. If you’re a boss with 1,600 brains working for you, you’re just another one. Get out of the way and encourage people to put their ideas forward,” Clarke says.
No time? No excuse
Not surprisingly, Clarke scoffs at the suggestion that there is no time to be innovative today, to take the time to think outside the accepted square. He flips this concept on its head: Why are we so busy in the first place? Why are we working so hard? The answer is simple: the old ideas don’t work anymore.
Yet the whole idea of innovation is not to invent new work. It’s to simplify and make better use of our resources.
“We invented the wheel not to make ourselves busy but because we couldn’t be bothered walking,” says Clarke. “The commute time in Sydney is, on average, 15 hours per week. At what point do we say, ‘OK, this is ridiculous. We need to find a better way. Could we work from home? Could we use flexi-days or alternate start/finish work times?’ I don’t buy the idea we don’t have time – the time we have is going into old ideas that don’t work anymore.”
»» Define what innovation means to your organization
»» Ensure members of your executive team understand and are aligned in terms of what good innovation looks like for your business
»» Engage your broader leadership group to think-tank innovative concepts regularly, and build a bottom-up culture of idea generation
»» Leverage your strategy teams and business experts to work with your high-potential leaders to turn concepts into strong business cases
»» Prioritise practical, ROI-focused ideas and gain executive agreement on value-based investing
»» Create a culture that supports the continual flow of new ideas and strong feedback loops