Mastery: Founder and CEO of Tesla Motors Elon Musk knows the ins and outs of creating a product and bringing it to market — and the grit it requires. Picture: REUTERS
Mastery: Founder and CEO of Tesla Motors Elon Musk knows the ins and outs of creating a product and bringing it to market — and the grit it requires. Picture: REUTERS

Modern companies claim to seek innovation. But mostly they fear it. Executives tremble at the perceived threat of a cabal of bespectacled geeks whose idols are Steve Jobs and Elon Musk.

So, the awful adage "disrupt or be disrupted" haunts the hallways of every modern firm. Executives spend a good deal of their time listening to conference speakers who’ve not invented a thing in their lives fulminating about how the world should reinvent itself.

I can’t stand the word "disrupt"; I prefer the word "improve". I ignored all that hype and I focused on one thing: uncovering the latent talent I knew was inside some of the brilliant individuals I walk the halls with every day. 

You need grit and steel after the giddiness of winning approval on your pitch
Katherine Madley

The real innovators out there are quietly inventing the future. They’re not planning to "disrupt" the world; rather, they want to improve it, and with it, the wellbeing of the human race. The ideas they give birth to are developed incrementally, built, rebuilt, broken, rebuilt and then dropped like silent depth charges into the market and tested.

The market talks back to a new product, enhancements take place and the product evolves over time. One day, it reaches an inflection point and suddenly becomes mainstream. The media goes bananas and anoints it as the latest "disruption". But the recipe is very simple: combine old ideas in a novel way and experiment boldly. Add good old-fashioned elbow grease. Test your assumptions and iterate towards excellence. Don’t play a boastful instrument or dance to other people’s tunes.

When we started our innovation programme in 2013, the two of us who started it were sure of a few things:

• Our people are very smart. We need to provide a fear-free platform for them to share their smarts. We knew that great ideas were inside us. We just needed to excavate them. We built a programme and home-grown hub, did some creative campaigning and thought we would get about 30 ideas. On our first campaign, we received 156 proposals. When we started sifting through the outpouring of ideas, I realised they weren’t all fresh, but even so, we personally replied and engaged with every single one.

• Our strategy was to create a safe space for ideation. Pretty soon, our habit of including people, encouraging people and building people up bore fruit. Confidence grew and so did the quality of the ideas;

• Not everyone knows how to write a clear, crisp business case, let alone how to pitch an idea to group executive committee members and investors. We taught our innovative people the basics of marketing themselves and helped them creatively generate an elevator pitch and a full presentation and write a business case with clear numbers attached to the idea. We helped them win;

• Innovation is an "extramural" until you become so good at it that your job changes. We adopted a funnel approach: we sifted through hundreds of ideas, picked about 50, shaped about 10 into proper business cases and pitches, and then took about five to market.

The people who actually worked on the idea after its acceptance, building it out and taking it to market, obtained mastery en route and changed their own world. There are no short cuts; you have to understand every layer of it and if you don’t have a focused, long-term, disciplined work ethic, forget it.

You need grit and steel after the giddiness of winning approval on your pitch, and you are given the money required. Those who demonstrate the determination and creative stamina leap out of their jobs and into their chosen product-build full time;

• The long-term innovators in your company stand out quickly. They floated up to us like cream on milk. We created an innovation crucible with diverse people who are natural innovators (that is, actually come up with original ideas affecting revenue, decreasing cost or streamlining a process) and iron-sharpened iron.

These are our engines of innovation: they think, they build and they collaborate. We believe collaboration fundamentally accelerates innovation;

• The face of innovation must be the group CEO and the investors. Our leaders at the top executive level personally rewarded the innovators and helped them with their ideas and business cases. When our staff saw this in action, they believed in it and wanted to be part of it. This cemented the culture tremendously;

• Attention is addictive — you might as well feed it. Reward the thinker. Have a glittering event, showcase the ideas, run an innovation den day, expose the brilliant thinkers to the top leaders – they deserve it and the growth and engagement from these rewards are well worth it;

• If you want to lead innovation, you need to be an inventor yourself. While leading the programme, you need to build a new product to take to market. There is no better way of leading than leading by example. Help others find the music inside themselves and give them the opportunity to play in the orchestra.

Madley is group executive: strategy, programmes and performance at Alexander Forbes

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