• August 14, 2020

What is Innovation Leadership?

UCD Business SchoolInnovation isn’t everything. That wasn’t a typo – “isn’t”

Don’t get me wrong, innovation is a key ingredient at Rocket, it’s just that ‘solving customer problems’ is really what it is all about. The trick is making sure customer problems are visible to everyone and then empowering the team to solve them.

Several weeks ago, I found myself in Downtown Denver on a cold Friday night. I had been invited to speak at the University of Denver’s Business School by the MBA Student Organisation.

So, what was my message on Innovation Leadership?

Enabling others

I often hear innovation leadership is about the leader having a vision and directing people around that vision. To me, that isn’t leadership. That’s management. Innovation Management.

As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others.

Bill Gates said that, last century. The great thing about empowering others is it scales much better than just directing others. When you only have a few people on your team, you won’t notice it as much. As your team grows, if you are not enabling others to innovate, it will catch up to you. When you start with a big innovation, you won’t notice it as much.  As that initial high gets old, you will start to see your product stagnate.

I believe the key to enabling starts in 3 areas.

  1. Get your team to hear the customers – directly
  2. Push them to find new perspectives
  3. Tolerate and reward risk

How are you enabling your team?

Hearing Customers

Are you building a car or just a better horse?It is really hard to solve customer problems without talking to customers. At Rocket we do this in several ways, including Customer Advisory Boards and Early Adopter Programs.

Customer Advisory Boards are about getting a group of strategic customers together to discuss future directions. At a minimum, making a summary of the discussion available for the team helps them stay in touch. Even better is encouraging people to sit in on the discussion. This allows them to hear the discussion from their own perspective, rather then being filtered through yours.

Early Adopter Programs enable you to get product in front of customers. Nothing allows your team to understand reality better than getting customer feedback on something tangible. Innovation is 9/10th execution and Early Adopter Programs give your team course corrections by helping you test any assumptions designed into the product.

It is important to keep in mind that that understanding the problem a customer faces is far more valuable than hearing a solution from the customer. I always like to use the quote that’s mistakenly attributed to Henry ford:

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses

It’s important that it isn’t just you hearing the customers, otherwise everything will be filtered through your own biases and assumptions – the more direct the customer interaction, the more opportunities to dig out a hidden gem. Remember, it’s about finding out what problems people have, liking needing to get someone faster, that allows you to continue to dig and find out what you should build, rather wasting time trying to breed faster horses.

How often does your team interact with your customers?

[box type=”note”]Stay tuned for ‘finding new perspectives’ in Part 2 of the series on Innovation Leadership.[/box]

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Dan McGrath 5 Posts

Dan is the former Managing Director of R&D for the U2 Servers Lab at Rocket Software.

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