When leaders talk about innovation excitement fills the room. Shift the topic to implementing change and a pall of gloom appears, along with the whining that tends to come with negativity. Of course, you can't have one without the other. There is an old adage that everyone wants progress but nobody wants change, which perfectly describes the challenge inherent to innovation.
Innovation, especially the variety that is disruptive, is attractive to executives regardless of industry. Having worked with several companies that wanted to create a "culture of innovation" among their team or entire organization, it's easy to see why they want it. It fuels competitive advantage and Boards of Directors seem particularly enamored with the idea of late.
If you want to have that culture of innovation, the kind that allows new and powerful ideas to thrive throughout your business, then two things are vital to remember.
1. Most innovations aren't in the category of major breakthroughs; they are often incremental in nature. A process improvement here, a product enhancement there, or new ways to deliver a service are some of the most common. They all matter and they all add up like compounding interest. It's sometimes referred to as the "aggregation of marginal gains."
2. Most innovations aren't born in a conference room. They occur with those closest to the work. On one of the engagements I mentioned earlier, a call center technician came up with the process for how they could eliminate blind transfers (my most hated service experience). So if you want to cash in on those innovations, you'll need to establish standards that support this kind of work. That includes standards for the kind of mistakes that aren't just tolerated, but encouraged, as well as those that are not acceptable.
Innovation and change both require a leader to define expectations and create an environment that enables people to experiment a little; to make decisions that influence the work they do. Ultimately, that's what the leaders who excel at fostering innovation do best.