Another post by Kelly Herrell, one of our guest bloggers. Kelly is the CEO of Vyatta, “a venture-funded company disrupting the networking industry” and is also a long-time member of ExpertCEO. You can read his blog at http://kellyherrell.wordpress.com/
By the time the facts are available, the trend is already underway
A CEO I know recently fired his VP Marketing because “he wasn’t innovative enough.” Perhaps a fair point, but it begs the question: Do we hold ourselves to the same standards? CEOs often talk of “fostering” innovation, but we should also be on the hook to be directly innovative ourselves. To do that, we need to be able to see opportunities that others don’t.
Otherwise we’re just cows watching satellites.
Innovation happens when observations are filtered and synthesized. Innovators are always first, in the sense that they do something creative and valuable before someone else does. Their minds were working on it well ahead of everyone else… which means they began seeing trends and opportunities earlier than others.
How does an innovative CEO get ahead of the curve like this? How can we learn to see around corners? It’s a qualitative skill. You don’t find an innovative opportunity by reading about it directly. If the analysts and pundits are covering the evolution of an opportunity, you’re behind. It’s already happened. Satellites 1, Cows 0.
There’s no handbook for how to be innovative, but it seems to me there are a few key elements:
1. Develop some strong mental models of how change occurs. Sometimes history repeats itself, other times new dynamics are at work. If you don’t have good mental frameworks for what drives change, start mooing. Below I list a couple of books that I think are relevant; I’d love to hear what others have found to be useful.
2. Challenge convention. It’s hard to shake things up if you limit yourself to the same rules and assumptions that everyone inside and outside your company is using. So unshackle yourself from the deepest and most sacred assumptions, and let the creativity flow.
3. Look past your own desk. There is a strong possibility that trends in other industries will affect yours. Understand what’s happening before the competition does, and act on it earlier.
Often innovation is sparked from a blend of things that make it possible. Take Apple: They were previously “the Mac company.” Then they harnessed the trends of digitized music and the explosion in bandwidth, and took a new power position in the music industry. Or look at Amazon: Previously the online book seller, they realized that they had developed mad data center skills. Then they noticed that enterprise IT architectures were going to morph toward an evolution of the hosting / SaaS concept, so they blended the two and are now a force in the huge new trend of cloud computing.
Most innovations aren’t so earth-shaking. But innovation is how we break through incrementalism and create step-function increases in the value of our companies. Grok the structure of revolution, challenge convention, and unroll the ball of string farther than others do. Then create a strategy around that. You may sound crazy, but you won’t be suicidal.
To get started, do some mental calisthenics. Get your brain in shape for innovation’s year-round swimsuit season with a steroid injection: The Innovator’s Dilemma by Harvard’s Clayton Christensen. It’s a brilliant integration of discrete theories on technology innovation into one highly actionable model. Internalize it and you will start seeing around corners.
Second, to help break the habit of linear thinking, realize that innovation often occurs when different disciplines interact. The Medici Effect does a quick and good job of describing this effect. And if you really feel like spelunking on this concept, pick up Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos by Mitchell Waldrop. For two decades Citi has funded a research effort that puts prize-winning economists, physicists, biologists, and computer scientists all under one roof. What they are discovering – and how they’re discovering it — will blow your funky innovative mind.
In the end, we’re CEOs not researchers. But we need to take our brains for long daily walks. Henry Ford once said, “Thinking is the hardest work there is. That’s why so few people actually do it.”
What are your thoughts on divining innovation from the CEO? Let’s talk about it in here…