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Building a Powerful Innovation Machine: An Interview with Rowan Gibson | Part 1 of 3

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10 Bits of Advice from the World’s Most Innovative Leaders

It’s always smart to learn from the successes and failures of others, and who better to learn from than some of the world’s biggest drivers of innovation?

Here are 10 pointers to always remember if you want to stay ahead in the innovation game:

1. Take notes

“Note taking is one of my favorite pastimes. I can’t tell you where I’d be if I hadn’t had a pen on hand to write down my ideas (or more importantly, other people’s) as soon as they came to me. Some of Virgin’s most successful companies have been born from random moments – if we hadn’t opened our notebooks, they would never have happened.”
— Richard Branson, Founder of Virgin Group [on a LinkedIn post].

The human brain is not infallible, and we’re quite prone to forgetting thoughts we were having just a second ago. Imagine the countless ideas you’ve cast away into the wind just because you did not bother to note them down!

To-Do

Jot down all your thoughts, discussions, and ideas. Use your phone (Evernote is a great free app for that) or do it like Branson in a notebook (the Dream Bigger book is perfect for this too). Don’t forget to take these ideas to the next level. It’s important to periodically run through these ideas and convert them into measurable goals for your company.

2. Think long term

“If everything you do needs to work on a three-year time horizon, then you’re competing against a lot of people. But if you’re willing to invest on a seven-year time horizon, you’re now competing against a fraction of those people, because very few companies are willing to do that.”
— Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon [in an interview with Wired magazine]

The thing about planning a future for your company is that you have to be daring enough to plant seeds that will only materialize and blossom far ahead in the future.

If you plan only for the immediate future, you’re on the fast track to be disrupted.

To-Do

Instead of being enmeshed in the day-to-day grind, it’s important to set aside time for your long-term goals. Have ambitious ones far ahead into the future, and be sure to check in on them constantly. The Strategic Innovation Canvas is a great tool your team can use to develop a long-term innovation portfolio. Download it free here.

3. Have a diverse team

When the team’s all a bunch of scientists, it is best to have a peasant lead the way. His way of thinking is different. It’s easier to win if you have people seeing things from different perspectives.”
— Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba Group.

If you place a bunch of very similar people together, you’re probably not going to get very exciting results. Diverse teams — those with different genders, personalities, backgrounds, and different points of views — have been proven to perform better financially.

To-Do

Assemble your dream team of very different people, and ensure they’re not just different for diversity’s sake. Every innovation team needs different personalities to be effective — you’ll need a visionary, a doer, an analyst, and so forth.

[Take our quiz to see which type of innovator you are]

4. Fuel your innovations with data

“What begins with intuition is fueled by insights. If you’re lucky, these reinforce one another.” — Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube.

Your entire team and company might believe your latest venture is the best idea on earth, but it isn’t so until it’s validated by cold hard data.

Google started off displaying 10 results per page because their founders randomly figured that it was the best number. They then asked users if they preferred having 10, 20, or 30 search results on one page. All the users picked 30. But when Google actually did some user tests, they found that pages with 10 results fared much better simply because it loaded faster.

The data showed them what opinions didn’t.

To-Do

Start collecting and objectively analyzing data on your innovations — start by testing them in a controlled environment to see if they work rather than pumping a lot of $$$ into something that will never take off.

5. Execute fast

“Vision without execution is hallucination.”
— Thomas Edison

We’ve run multiple innovation workshops over the years where our strategy tools have helped teams uncover fresh and possibly future-transforming ideas for their companies. They always leave the workshops psyched to bring these ideas to life.

However, what often happens when we check in on them is that these ideas get stuck on the back-burner as they dealt with their day-to-day work. A year on, and they’re completely forgotten.

Any of these ideas could’ve been the defining move that transforms the company’s future, but they stay just that — ideas.

As our advisory board member and globally-recognized expert on strategy and innovation Rita McGrath says, “generating ideas is not a problem. Incubation is. Acceleration is.”

To-Do

The key to strategic innovation is to execute, and execute fast. Set up a task force with specific roles and give the team leader the ownership to take this idea to market.

[Read this case study on how Statoil moves from idea to execution fast.]

6. Be comfortable being scared

“If you push through that feeling of being scared, that feeling of taking risks, really amazing things can happen.”
— Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo!

Yep, strategic planning is scary. It’s basically you making decisions that may or may not fail, which may or may not hijack your entire career that you’ve built thus far. This is why so many top executives always go for the safer option of sitting on their existing business models instead of trying to challenge the status quo.

But the world’s best innovators embrace the fear of the unknown.

To-Do

Fight your fear of change. Remember, not doing anything is a much bigger risk than innovating. Remember Kodak?

7. Hire the right people


“Starting and growing a business is as much about the innovation, drive, and determination of the people behind it as the product they sell.”

— Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, Tesla Motors, co-founder of SolarCity and several other companies.

Successful companies get to where they are today because they get one crucial thing right — hiring great people who help them grow.

This is so important to Elon Musk that he actually interviews everyone at SpaceX personally. SpaceX is a 500-person company, so you can imagine the amount of interviews he’s sat through.

To-Do

Look for people aligned with your company’s purpose and culture. If your purpose is to innovate, and innovate successfully, it’s important to look for characteristics like curiosity and positivity, and an ability to work together with others without being a jerk.

8. Dare to fail

“The only way you are going to have success is to have lots of failures first.”
— Sergey Brin, Co-Founder of Google.

Google is always, always testing out new projects, and they have their fair share of failures.

A few that comes to mind would be Google+, Orkut, Google Wave, Google Video, and several that we can’t even remember the names of. That’s how often they’ve failed.

But with its many failures comes many successes as well, and today Google Maps, Gmail, Google Pixel, Google Translate, and loads more are mainstays in our lives.

You have to be willing to experiment and fail in order to hit the pots of gold.

To-Do

Set budget aside for several ambitious projects that might fail. The trick is to fail quickly and cheaply. If you have many projects ongoing, when one of them takes off, it might just become your brand new business model.

The Three Levels of Business Models is a great strategy tool to structure business models based on its risk profile. Download it free here.

9. Listen


“Find good advisers, mentors and team mates to discuss your thoughts and problem solve with. Make sure you listen to them. It doesn’t necessarily mean you always have to agree with them, but you do always have to be open to learning from others.”
— Hooi Ling Tan, co-founder of Grab, a technology company transforming the landscape of Southeast Asia’s taxi industry.

Just as it is important to base your actions on data, it is crucial that you tap into the insights of the smart people around you. There’s almost never a time where a huge success can be accounted to only one person — collaboration is king.

To-Do

It’s simple. Don’t tune out the differing opinions of those around you. Consider them before you cast them off simply because they’re not in line with yours.

10. Invest in innovation training

“You have to train people to be innovative in business.”
— Gary Hamel, one of the world’s most influential management experts and founder of Strategos.”

The ability to think outside the norm is not just an innate skill gifted innovators are born with. You too can pick it up by learning how to think like they do.

A good innovation workshop or program can help you build the right architecture within your team for strategy and innovation.

It’ll equip you with the strategy and innovation tools you need to frame your mindset when it comes to business model innovation and help you think like you’ve never thought before.

Trying to drive innovation in your company without a solid strategy or know-how might result in a game-changing invention if you’re lucky, but in most cases it is simply a recipe for wasted funds and quite possibly disaster.

To-Do

Upgrade your innovation toolbox and mindset. Read books, dive into real case studies of companies that have succeeded or failed, focus on building a framework that promotes innovation. If you don’t know how, get training.

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Have a personal favorite piece of advice from your own mentor? Share them in the comments section below!

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How Statoil Moved from Idea to Execution in Weeks, Not Months