January 25, 2021

Most of us spent 2020 experiencing upheaval like never before, both on a global scale and in our personal and professional lives. Since March 2020, the world has been in constant state of flux as we all try to get our bearings in the COVID-19 reality. To frame a terrible year in its best possible light, you could characterize this as an intense period of innovation. But is all the change we’re going through really strategic innovation? Or is it merely a knee-jerk reaction to the current moment?

I’ve spent the year watching with curiosity to see which of these new COVID-induced routines will be valuable enough to stay – the true innovations – and which are destined for the dustbin when the quarantine lifts. For leaders who are dedicated to the long-term approach and have set their organizations up as strategic innovators, this is an exciting time to help develop those here-to-stay processes. But how does an organization create a culture that incubates ideas? And what separates reactive change from strategic innovation?

COVID-19 and Clark Nuber

Like so many other organizations this year, we at Clark Nuber spent 2020 learning to serve clients in new ways, interacting with one another through different mediums, and getting creative with training and developing our team remotely.

All this rapid change was difficult, but thanks to our ongoing investments in technology, we were able to find steady footing fairly quickly. Yet despite this early foundation, I was still concerned the pandemic would affect our firm’s ability to achieve our strategic goals, including the fostering of innovation in our office. Surveying the business landscape, we could see innovation happening all around us, but it was not purposeful, process-driven, or strategic in origin. It was emergency innovation for the sake of survival.

What is Strategic Innovation?

So, while 2020 has forced innovation on all of us, the majority of it has not been strategic. Strategic innovation is about looking down the road to what is coming, rather than reacting to what is right in front of you at the moment. It is about asking questions: Is this idea the most optimal solution to this problem? Is there something that can be further reaching and more impactful? Are we even asking the right question?

From my recent experience, if you want to be an innovation leader, you should be imagining your organization and your industry 10 years from now and setting the wheels in motion to create a real and stronger ‘you’ in that future. In order for a firm to thrive, it must have the ability to make modifications to itself now so that it can improve the standing of its future self.

Unfortunately, time is unyielding, and it won’t pause while we deal with a global pandemic. Firms that fail to adapt and strategically innovate during this time will fall quickly behind.

Developing Strategic Innovation

Innovation can come from a variety of places, and it should be sought after in all levels of the organization. Achieving this will require a team composed of observers, inventors, thought engineers, implementers, and champions. The people with the ability to find the first spark of an idea are not always the same people that can turn that spark into a flame. And as leaders, we cannot count on the wind to blow in the right direction to fan that flame for us. We need to be intentional about the process of development.

When the shareholders at Clark Nuber decided innovation would become a pillar of our identity, we began with the goals we hoped to achieve and the values we wanted to support. At the time, our goals and values included things like quickening the pace of change in our firm, engaging players from all levels of our organization, and properly supporting the ideas that presented themselves. From there, we sketched out a plan for nurturing employees’ ideas from lightbulb-moment to implementation. Ultimately, we developed a process to in-take and develop ideas; another to score, evaluate, and prioritize ideas; and another to systemically pilot and implement ideas. With these processes in place, and with the proper focus and support, innovative solutions can now move from ideation, to pilot, to implementation more quickly within our firm.

When developing your own innovation processes, ask yourself first what it is you hope to accomplish, and the values you want to live out through the innovation program. These two questions will help guide your own planning and execution.

How Do You Recognize Strategic Innovation

It’s easy to forget that while innovation can spring from a variety of sources, it can also inhabit many different forms and shapes as well. Clark Nuber found an anchor for our innovation strategy in an article from CB Insights which describes seven ways to innovate, including:

  • Creation of a new product or service category (Ford Model T, iPhone, MP3 player)
  • Disruption of an existing product or service category (Netflix)
  • Business model innovation (Software as a Service instead of per-seat subscriptions)
  • Redefining a market (Uber, Google, Amazon)
  • Customer experience innovation (Amazon Prime)
  • Customer behavior innovation (Slack)
  • Innovation in the way employees/teams organize (Pixar)

It’s important to realize that innovation isn’t always about creating new things or new methods the world has never seen. It can certainly be those things, but innovation can also mean doing existing things in a different way and with different resources.

Is Your Organization Ready to Start Innovating?

Whether you are ready to start your innovation journey depends on where you feel your company is at now in the ongoing pandemic. And one way to gauge that is by placing your organization on Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

For many organizations, COVID-19 struck a fierce body blow that knocked us all down a few notches on the Needs pyramid. Clark Nuber initially focused on doing everything necessary to ensure the health and safety of our employees, including an immediate pivot to a 100% remote work business model. We then turned our attention to serving our clients and working with them to meet deadlines at a time when they were also adapting to meet the many business challenges caused by the pandemic. During those early months, we didn’t have the capacity to move up the Hierarchy and focus on more sustainable and strategic innovation. However, within about three months, we had mostly adapted to the challenges of the pandemic, and we were able to return to focusing on our long-term innovation strategy.

Each business will have its own gauge for when they are comfortable enough with the new normal and have the capacity to move up the Hierarchy. If you’ve been able to stabilize your business, then now is the time to get back to critically thinking about how to move your organization forward. It can take a long time to gather momentum, so it’s better to start that process now, while you can be a difference maker in a new way for your customers. Start building an innovation team and processes while you are comfortable with a new way of operating. Begin while other market participants are still getting organized. Beat them to the punch.

Setting Your Organization Up for Success

Getting back to my initial question, which of the new COVID-19 routines will be so valuable that we won’t want to do away with them when “normalcy” resumes? Were there changes forced on you in 2020 that you maybe should have been doing all along? How can you optimize these routines now that you are comfortable with them? Now is the time to weave those new skills into your operational fabric. Your future self will thank you for it.

If you have any questions or comments on setting your organization up to be an innovation leader, please send me an email.

This article is part of the Learning, Adapting, and Growing: Leadership Perspectives series, which explores the role of leadership from a diverse array of perspectives. Each article is written by a Clark Nuber leader who shares their ideas on the unique challenges and opportunities they have experienced, and the lessons they’ve learned along the way.

© Clark Nuber PS and Leadership Perspectives, 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Clark Nuber PS and Leadership Perspectives with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

This article contains general information only and should not be construed as accounting, business, financial, investment, legal, tax, or other professional advice or services. Before making any decision or taking any action, you should engage a qualified professional advisor.