Most people expect digital transformation to foster innovation by helping a company be more nimble, flexible, productive and efficient. But a digital transformation also can unleash a lot of angst that could slow innovation. So, what’s a company to do? THRIVE recently met up with entrepreneur and author Josh Linkner, who has talked and written extensively about innovation and calls it a “killer app.” Linkner has some don’t-miss advice for business leaders in the midst of their companies’ digital transformation journeys — and all that entails.
Q: How can companies sustain innovation in the midst of transformation?
A: Innovation is deploying creative thought for productive means across an entire organization. In other words, innovation doesn’t have to be only the big stuff led by a CEO or someone wearing a lab coat. It can be done by customer service, by maintenance crews — it’s the thousands or millions of little things performed constantly. That is how organizations thrive and adapt to change, especially in the context of digital transformation.
Leaders need to prioritize innovation and make it required behavior. And they shouldn’t give conflicting messages — be innovative, but if you make a mistake you are fired. With that, no one is going to be innovative.
Q: What are the biggest challenges companies face today as they try to innovate?
A: The biggest inhibitor of creative breakthrough is fear, not natural talent. All of us have creative capacity; we are hard-wired to be creative. That doesn’t mean we are all going to be Mozart, but we can be creative inside our respective roles. As leaders, if we can remove the fear, we can liberate creativity.
The second reason people get tripped up is that they try to solve everything all at once. But that makes the stakes too high. So, everyone just gravitates to doing nothing. Instead of trying to do giant swings, I like the idea of doing small experiments that are controlled in terms of time and money. Think of innovation as an ongoing process and all of sudden it becomes far less risky, and the balance starts to tilt in the right direction.
Innovation is no longer optional. One of the most important priorities of leaders today is harnessing innovation in themselves and in their teams.
Q: What are the qualities in a business leader that drive innovation?
A: Innovation is no longer optional. One of the most important priorities of leaders today is harnessing innovation in themselves and in their teams. I am not trying to be glib, but you have to recognize it. You have to give it priority.
Leaders also have to be focused on creativity, and recognize that creativity comes in a variety of different forms and at all different levels of the organization. And they need to establish rituals and rewards that make it safe to be creative.
Q: Can you give us some examples of rituals and rewards companies are using to encourage creativity and innovation?
A: One company that I’ve interviewed issues a “failure of the year” award every year. They have a big banquet to recognize a team or an individual who had a great idea — the numbers made sense, they went for it and it didn’t work out at all. But instead of getting fired, they get a standing ovation. This isn’t to suggest that we aim at failure. But think of the message that is driven deep into the DNA of this company about the importance of taking responsible risks, the importance of bringing your imagination to the surface.
Another company issues every team member two corporate “Get out of jail free” cards, just like in the Monopoly game, each year. The idea is: Go out on a limb, take responsible risks, let your hair down, try new things. And if you screw it all up, hand us one of these cards and you are off the hook, no questions asked.
Some might say these ideas are really risky. But what is the risk is of not doing something like that? Irrelevance, mediocrity. Rituals and rewards like these can provide massive boosts to creative output.
Q: Which companies today have got it right when it comes to innovation and digital transformation?
A: Those are not mutually exclusive; you can be innovative as you embrace digital transformation. Creating a culture of innovation is paramount, whether the challenge at hand is digital transformation, or fending off a competitive threat or navigating a global currency change.
There are so many companies getting it right. One that comes to mind is Ford Motor Co. They primarily look at themselves as a tech company now and see mobility as key to their future. They are willing to shed old ideas even about some of the most wholesale things, like which cars they create. Ford celebrates its past but is not married to it and is willing to do what is right in the context of the current landscape and the current technology that is available. Ford really is an old-line company doing bold and creative things.
Josh Linkner has spent his career harnessing the power of creative disruption. As the founder and CEO of five tech companies, Josh built his businesses from a blank page into a combined value of over $200 million. In addition, he has been involved with the launch, growth or financing of over 100 other companies. He also is a top-rated keynote speaker and two-time New York Times Bestselling Author. Check out his weekly blog to learn more of his tips and techniques to fuel innovation.