2012: The year of the Innovator

Guest writer Nic Robertson shines his light on the three core concepts that will define 2012’s innovative level: leadership, culture and collaboration.

My belief is that this year will be the year of the innovator. Innovative strategy will be the torch-bearer for business success. I hold the view that 2012 must be a year where rigidity of regulation is replaced by flexibility and capabilities to adapt to fluctuating local and global economies. In a dynamic world, filled with uncertainty, I think this year offers a business executive the chance to exploit the opportunities others are not willing to explore.

To allow for innovative strategy, there are 3 key areas that must be addressed; leadership, culture and collaboration.

Leadership is important; I consider it fundamental that a leader must promote new strategies and gain buy-in from the company as a whole. My vision is that through the careful nurturing of entrepreneurial energy and creative juices that provide innovative content, leadership must facilitate the filtration of new strategies through an organisation. I think it is key that an organisation has a horizontal structure to allow for flexible input from employees, who may find themselves closer to the source of problems, and thus provide more pragmatic solutions.

It is vital, in my view that in adopting a strategy, a 'strategic-driver' has the duty of project managing an idea from birth, through to development, implementation and the completion of the strategic life cycle. Just as responsibilities become opportunities, leaders will have to guide their businesses to meet uncertainty with innovation. I presume that if Steve Jobs was not present at the commencement of idea creation, integrally linked to product development and now lauded product launches - Apple would never have reached the colossal heights it has.

Communication from an open and accessible leadership is fundamental to achieving targets. I consider it essential that leadership allows for flexibility - to adapt as circumstances change unexpectedly. The lack of communicative skill and the inability to make quick decisions has hindered successful resolutions in European debt crisis talks in my view. This has merely exacerbated the underlying issues facing the region and economic revival strategies.

As Trias de Bes and Kotler discuss in Winning at Innovation, an "activator of an innovation must work in alignment with the overall objectives and strategies of the company". Thus, it is imperative that, through leadership, a company is able to sculpt a clear and distinct strategy with regards to innovation.

My observation, which follows from the writing of Trias de Bes and Kotler, is that leadership's ability to influence an organisation's staff content, is directly proportionate to the culture of a company. Employees, who are in an environment that embraces change and encouraged to think proactively, will accept the adoption of strategy and innovation with more ease.

One can no longer rely on only resource as a source of competitive advantage, in my view, as Google has shown that innovative culture is the key to transforming business and becoming a market leader, through its continuous strides to bring new content to the end user. And to think it was purely a search engine a few years ago is astonishing.

I can understand that it is difficult to build such a culture, especially if another style is firmly engrained, however, I deem it imperative that staff should be accessible to new approaches in strategy. There are ways in which to entice the inner innovator's entrepreneurial spirit in the workplace. Idea generation must be promoted as it acts as a catalyst to pro-active innovative spontaneity in the workplace. Take the restaurant industry for instance; it may naturally attract the creative-types, but even so the likelihood of a young commis-chef wanting to take a chance in presenting a new dish in front of the head chef and other senior chefs in a kitchen may well be too intimidating. Noma, a restaurant in Denmark, has a weekly project called 'Saturday Night Projects', when after service, someone presents an idea that they have been working on (follow these on twitter #saturdaynightprojects). This allows new directions and avenues to be explored, in a relaxed and encouraging manner. Noma is now one of the top restaurants in the world (http://www.noma.dk).

The concept of creating an innovative culture can be instituted in any small business or corporate, with similar idea generation projects to the one found at Noma. I disagree with those who are sceptical and who think a business can't afford to waste such precious time. In fact, I would go so far as to say that due to time constraints one is more likely to produce brilliantly spontaneous ideas, which may provide a platform for future innovative pursuits.

In the same mould as saying 'those who don't spend money, won't make money', I believe that those enterprises that do not lower their barriers to embrace an innovative culture will not develop the necessary innovative strategies to excel. In time, these enterprises will be surpassed by those that are resilient to change, tolerant of uncertainty and willing to adapt to the dynamism of the modern business environment. The lag between accepting one's current position and being leap-frogged by a competitor is diminishing daily. One must be proactive in your decision-making, and respond to changing circumstances. This will be achieved through leadership that accepts a culture of innovation and collaboration.

Collaboration has broken down doors in the last few years, allowing companies to further themselves by actively working together with other 'thinkers', developers, or even competitors. These mutual partnerships are being initiated through the likes of crowdsourcing and open competition. Tapscott and Williams discuss this in Makrowikinomics. They give the example of contests as an innovation model, like www.300house.com, which aims to build houses that cost $300 each. The hope is that through collaboration, one is able to "motivate creative solutions to grand challenges".

This principle can be implemented in the smaller areas of organisations. If collaboration can be integrated into the culture of a business, it would mean that those with specific skills can formulate strategies and use each other as springboards to develop strategies going forward. However, as mentioned before, a strong and open leadership is essential to the development of such implementations.

This could provide solutions for SMMEs, who may not have the resources for a large staff contingent. For instance, the law practice and accounting firm that are in the same building may find that by collaborating they can offer more efficient and exciting services to clients. Or on a more micro level, the head of one department may discover that through an idea generation meeting, one of his/her employees may be able to provide that missing creative spark that was needed to launch a new sales strategy in another department, which will be mutually benefit by benefitting the company as a whole.

The most important thing is to embrace the change and opportunity that an innovative strategy can bring. It is not an easy objective to promote, but with the combination of leadership, culture and collaboration, one could afford one's company the luxury of being successful and ahead of the pack in 2012.

Nic is a CIMA passed finalist, currently studying his CFA charter and holds a BCom from the University of Stellenbosch. He recently resigned as the Manager of the Management Accounting Division of Ross Munro and Associates, and is currently pursuing other avenues. He has also started a consulting company to help young entrepreneurs with their start-ups and finance decisions. He has an interest in innovation, financial strategy and investment thinking. Follow him on @nic.robertson72 on Twitter.

Category: Guest articles