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10 Innovation Questions Every CEO Must Answer

Setting: Conference room full of high-powered CEO’s. Topic: How to take their businesses to the next level. Facilitator: “Please take the blank card and write down your definition of innovation.” CEOs: Pick up the blank cards and begin writing. This scene describes how we kicked off an innovation discussion with a group of CEO’s from multiple industries. After writing down their definitions, I asked each one to read their definition of innovation. It was an eye-opening moment for all of us. Not one definition was identical. In fact many of them were very different. Honestly, there is much confusion and assumption about “innovation”… which explains why innovation is such an elusive goal for many firms. If everyone defines innovation differently, it’s no wonder there’s so much misalignment. Below are 10 provocative questions to answer as you evaluate your innovation mindset: 1. What is “innovation”? It is critical for you and your team to get clear about how you define innovation. For many firms, it’s just a sexy buzzword thrown into their mission statement. For others, it’s a value, a vision, or an aspiration of the type of culture they want to create. Engaging your stakeholders, especially your leadership team, in a thorough discussion about how you define innovation will reap long term rewards. 2. What is the value of innovation? Getting clear about the value and benefits of investing in innovation is essential. What can you expect to gain from becoming an innovative company? Although companies may share similar benefits, some may be more important to you at certain seasons of your business. Innovation should produce RESULTS! But what specific outcomes do you need? Increased profitability? Greater efficiency? Lower operational costs? Higher sales or market share? Retaining customers and key employees? A company who lives up to its innovation ideals is a company whose team members are truly committed to continuous improvement. 3. What types of innovation should we focus on? Basically, there are 2 types of innovation initiatives with different strategies for each effort: Organic and Game-Changers. The first approach focuses on “Organic” year to year growth (often a reasonable 3-5%). Its mantra is “sustainability”. Here you are looking for innovative ways to keep things moving forward. Maybe you’ve just come off of a huge growth period and need to let things settle down a bit. Or maybe you just don’t yet have the innovation capacity to aim for higher results. The second approach is focused on “Game-Changers” where you seek very aggressive goals (i.e. double sales or triple market share in next X years). These kinds of quantum leaps can stretch your people, systems and capabilities in positive and potentially negative ways. Although there are risks and dangers, the rewards can be exponentially greater. Check out my Innovation Continuum tool for a great way to think about the natural swings between safety and risk. 4. What does innovation look like within our industry, company, culture, and leadership? At the beginning of your innovation process, conduct assessments to determine your current state. After finding out your current reality, it’s time to involve your stakeholders in productive brainstorming about your future. Harvesting their ideas and insights, along with their specific suggestions about areas needing attention, will begin the important process of engagement. Out of this data and conversations, you begin to develop a shared vision of what innovation could look like at your company. 5. What are the risks and downsides of innovation? Nearly all growth efforts include some element of risk. As CEO, your job is to help the team identify, evaluate, mitigate, and/or overcome those risks. Defining the types of failure that are acceptable and not acceptable will help your team embrace a culture of innovation. Setting parameters for innovation (is this a “sink the company” risk or a “catalytic learning experience”?) will allow your people to stretch within the limits you’ve framed. As a leader, being open-minded about the outcomes and learnings is important; since one risk is that your team may discover solutions and ideas that are different than ones you may prefer. 6. What is our innovation strategy? Although many CEOs are becoming more strategic and intentional about their innovation programs, there are still a large number of companies that approach innovation with an “event mindset”. Over the past 20 years of leading and facilitating innovation initiatives, I’ve found that a “process mindset” is a better approach. This process sets up regular patterns and seasons to reflect, evaluate, and brainstorm. Developing a healthy, balanced, and sustainable innovation culture can be very complex. Innovation should be woven into all threads (systems, processes, hiring, onboarding, training, events, meetings, etc.) to strengthen the fabric of your firm. 7. What metrics do we use to measure innovation? Any significant initiative requires you to define “success”. What metrics make sense when it comes to determining whether your innovation efforts are producing your desired results? It is critical for you and your team to wrestle with and clearly state your desired outcomes BEFORE you get too deep into any innovation initiative. Some metrics need to be hard (ex. # of new products created or sold, ROI, market share, media impressions, employee retention, etc.). Some metrics need to be “softer” (employee attitude, positivity, engagement, etc.). Have a robust conversation with your leadership team about key metrics will pay off in the long run. 8. How can we be more innovation-oriented? I’ve found the most successful companies focus on creating “Atmospheres of Innovation”. Their cultures value all stakeholders, are open to input from insiders and outsiders, encourage and reward employees to adopt a continuous improvement mindset, and provide systematic opportunities to stretch, grow, train, fail, and learn. The tone is nearly always set by the leadership team’s degree of openness and positive attitude. If the leaders already know it all and aren’t really open to input from others, creating an innovation culture is doomed to fail. 9. Who can help us increase our innovation capacity? First, you need to look internally within your own team – who has a spirit of positivity, openness, intellectual rigor, and robust relationships? Consider forming an Innovation Culture Team on a pilot project basis. Outline their mission, metrics, and timeframe. Task them with forming a company-wide plan to harvest the many untapped ideas buried in their co-workers’ brains about how to create or re-inforce a culture of innovation. It’s also helpful to enlist the expertise of outsiders who are familiar with the nuances of the innovation process. These people should provide a holistic view of your company’s goals, and then work with your internal team to create a customized model and plan that engages your team and allows them to maximize their unique skill sets. 10. What are the next steps to consider if we want to become more innovation savvy? Use these questions to clarify your innovation needs and enhance your innovation capacity. I’d be glad to share several innovation models and tools to help you evaluate your needs. If you’d like a copy of the Innovation Continuum tool, the High-Stakes Innovation Process and the Game-Changers 911 Questions, send an email to:

John Storm is the President of the BrainStorm Network. He works with people who want to bring their ideas to Life! John’s focus is to help people get unstuck, spark fresh thinking, and generate game-changing ideas, solutions, and results. He offers innovation services including facilitation, training, consulting, and speaking via keynotes, workshops, seminars, and retreats.

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