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Strategies to Spearhead Innovation – An Executive Search Firm Perspective

Posted on 13/02/2018 by bryanlow

INNOVATING CHANGE

Without a spirit of innovation, every organisation including our executive search company in Singapore will eventually die. Here are some strategies enlightened leaders can use to successfully implement a change initiative.

By Joshua Yim
CEO, Achieve Group

We all know how disruptive technologies are changing the game across every industry today. This is happening even in the field of recruitment and human resources, which is traditionally known to be a ‘people business’.

As corporate leaders, most of us are well-schooled in the familiar narrative of how companies that did not innovate to stay ahead of the game eventually met their demise. Famous failures like Kodak, Xerox and Borders bookstore certainly come to mind.

Conversely, the companies that have effectively reinvented themselves have become phenomenal success stories in the history of business. The extraordinary turnaround of Apple on the back of breakthrough technology and products under Steve Job’s leadership is a legendary case study in point. Even toy manufacturer LEGO is a good example of a company once on the brink of obsolescence that has revived itself through Hollywood movies, for example, to stay relevant in the minds of consumers.

So we know that change is necessary and imminent, and innovation is the name of the game. But the question is how do we implement it effectively and successfully.

In an ideal world, we would all love to have a Steve Jobs or Jack Ma steering the reins (or wish we ourselves are like them!). But the reality is that such truly visionary leaders are few and far between, and that’s what makes these individuals so extraordinary. So is the organisation doomed just because the leader is not as innovative, dynamic and charismatic as these powerhouses? No.

As long the enlightened leader is able to recognise that change is needed, there is hope. The boss is the brainchild behind this innovation initiative and his job is to map out the right vision and set the foundation for the changes to be accepted, or do his best to at least minimise the resistance. He must acknowledge and understand that people generally don’t like change. It is human nature to resist anything that threatens their sense of familiarity and comfort. And perhaps the CEO himself might not like change either, but he recognises that it will benefit not just the organisation but also its people, as it challenges them to stretch outside their comfort zones.

We as consumers also tend to resist changes and updates made to our well-loved products. Whenever Microsoft releases a new version of its Windows operating system, for instance, users have been known to complain, resist and even choose not to upgrade while holding onto the older version even if the newer ones may perform better. So if customers can resist changes to a company’s products and services, what more the employees of an organisation?

Cultivating a Culture of Innovation

The CEO’s first task is to get buy-in from the core leadership team. All his senior leaders must be aligned to this vision and goal. Next, he needs to send out a clear message to employees that the change is coming and, more importantly, why it is essential. Deploy all available communication platforms from email, employee newsletters, the company’s intranet and message boards to convening special town hall meetings and even go grassroots with personal interactions through coffee or meals with individual staff members or teams to get them onboard.

Now if the leader is not charismatic enough or does not possess the necessary qualities that will heighten the likelihood of a successful outcome, he should appoint a Chief Innovation Officer (CIO) to spearhead this taskforce.

There are two strategies one can use in selecting the right CIO: Either select someone from within the company, or bring in a specialist from outside the organisation. There are pros and cons to both.

If the CIO is appointed from within the company, it will certainly be an easier task ahead as the individual is already familiar with the internal workings of the organisation, and will face less resistance from fellow employees. However, an important criterion for selection is that the individual must be someone with an out-of-the-box approach to problems and solutions in order to generate breakthroughs for the organisation. Ideally, a member of the senior management team should be chosen, or at least someone of a managerial level.

That said, engaging an individual from outside the organisation (not necessarily from the same industry) can be highly beneficial in terms of new ideas, new ways of doing things, and the potential to revolutionise products, services and systems. Better yet, such individuals come without any baggage. This method is tougher as there will be a lot of old guards in the organisation who are likely to be very set in their ways and resist the call for change. If these employees do not exhibit support for the innovation initiative, the organisation may need to make the tough call of weeding them out, as internal poison will kill the spirit of innovation.

Nonetheless, HR plays an important role together with the CEO in handling this. For instance, every company has an appraisal system and the area of innovation can be set out as a KPI metric. If the individual shows he does not embrace innovation/change or at least shows support for it, then he will be graded poorly. The old guards who are not willing to move with the times could be encouraged to retire, as the company can only move forward if all employees are moving in a similar direction.

Additionally, HR should take a consultative and collaborative approach to working with the CEO to build an internal corporate culture that embraces change. This can be achieved through organisational development initiatives such as an ‘Innovation Day’ or ‘Think-Out-Of-The-Box Day’, or other events and programmes designed to foster fun and interaction between the leadership and workers with the objective of changing the mindsets of all employees and opening them up to accepting change.

Concurrently, the CIO will need to put together an Innovation Taskforce to engineer and execute the leader’s vision. The CIO will either work hand-in-hand with the existing R&D head and his team, or assemble such a team if there isn’t one. The job of the CIO and his taskforce will then be to go out and canvas for new ideas, find out what’s going on in the market, check out what competitors and vendors are doing, and discover new technologies that the organisation can harness to contribute to the evolution of the organisation.

Resources will need to be invested in order to come up with new inventions, new products and services, and new ways of doing things. At adhesive specialist 3M, for instance, employees are encouraged to use 15% of their work hours to do nothing but think and brainstorm about new products they could invent. This is a part of the internal culture that has been purposefully built within a company that prides itself on innovation.

The CIO will be responsible for managing the resources, budgets and overall progress of the innovation initiative, reporting directly to the CEO. He will work very closely with the other departments within the organisation and would have to listen very closely to the customers in order to understand their needs and desires, and test out new products. This special R&D taskforce ought to be given specific KPIs and milestones to measure their progress and success.

In selecting a CIO and his team, we may need to consider letting the younger generation take the lead. They are always the first to embrace new technologies, and new ideas and innovations come more naturally to them whereas admittedly, it is sometimes tough for those of us leaders in our 40s and 50s to think out of the box. I believe they also have the energy and drive to pull off a good job in this goal of rejuvenating the whole organisation.

Take our company Achieve Group as an example. Being in the business for 28 years, many of our senior management team members have been with the organisation for many years and are of a ‘mature’ age. So when it comes to social media work, it can be quite challenging for the team to take the lead, as they may not be as competent and familiar in this domain. Therefore, we had the younger generation spearhead these initiatives as they have the knowledge and are more naturally inclined towards social media, which they have grown up with. By having these younger workers take responsibility of this portfolio, we have witnessed a certain level of success in this area over time, and it has reinforced the idea that the choice of individual or team doing the job determines whether the change initiative will be successful, and it also makes a difference in creating a culture of innovation.

Ultimately, the success of any journey towards innovation really rests upon the shoulders of the CEO. With a solid vision backed up by the necessary resources and support, the delicate process of change management can be effectively managed and executed, whether the CIO is appointed internally or externally.