The personal innovation imperative

In their new book, The Game Changer: How You Can Drive Revenue and Profit Growth with Innovation, authors A.G. Lafley and Ram Charan warn that if middle managers don't make a commitment to support and practice innovation, they will soon be left behind by a world that is steadily moving in the direction of becoming much more innovative.

Innovation books and articles have been telling us for years that organizations must either innovate or die. But very little has been written about the need for personal innovation – making a personal commitment to constantly seeking out better solutions, sharing ideas and knowledge with others in your organization and keeping an eye open for new opportunities.

In their new book, The Game Changer: How You Can Drive Revenue and Profit Growth with Innovation, authors A.G. Lafley and Ram Charan warn that if middle managers don’t make a commitment to support and practice innovation, they will soon be left behind by a world that is steadily moving in the direction of becoming much more innovative:

“Every leader in charge of a P&L has to make innovation happen, even if the company lacks a culture of innovation. I’ll go further, and ask of middle managers reading this: Are you actively participating in one or more innovation-centered growth projects? If not, you should be worried, because you’ll be left behind or risk obsolescence in the skills that will be required in the future. Without this experience, you are neither building your capabilities nor learning how to deal with uncertainty and managing risk. Figuring out how to make decisions across silos – bringing together all the skills from people across the company to make innovation happen – can help to make you CEO material. No matter what your job is as middle manager, you must practice and master the art of observing customers and detecting insights for innovation.”

Is that a wakeup call for middle managers, or what? I think there are several things that are significant about this prediction:

First, it doesn’t emphasize just “drinking the Koolaid” and committing to innovation, but learning a new skill set that may be somewhat important today, but will be vitally important tomorrow. Essentially, this is one of those areas where you must learn by doing, and perhaps even learn from your mistakes.

In either case, I believe even the most jaded senior management team will appreciate your efforts to expand your skills – both in terms of developing new ideas as well as encouraging and making new connections and conversations between business silos – which will put you in a more advantageous position for the future.

Let’s assume the worst-case scenario for a moment: Let’s say that your efforts to foster innovation in your organization are not well-received, and you find yourself either displaced from that job or looking for a new opportunity in a more supportive organization. In either case, the fact that you can put one or more innovation projects on your resume will differentiate you from the growing pack of “old school” middle managers also looking for work. And in the years ahead, that will most likely become a significant advantage for you!

I’m not advocating jumping off the deep end and taking massive, unconsidered risks with your career. But rather, there’s plenty of room to take some calculated risks that could pay off big for you, and which would have a relatively small downside if they did not succeed.

Secondly, the authors’ comments seem to imply a certain air of inevitability about innovation: Whether you like it or not, it’s coming to your organization, sooner or later. Now is the time to begin developing your skills in the area of personal innovation, so that when your company does decide to get serious about it, you will be ahead of the curve rather than trying to play catch-up.

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