Stay Ahead and Innovate

Oct 11th, 2017

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“The key difference between creativity and innovation is execution”

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic


Innovation is the number one challenge for today’s CEO, according to the 2017 PWC CEO Global Survey. This will not surprise you. How, therefore, can you ensure your thinking stays fresh? What concrete steps can you take to keep your organisation ahead?


I am currently working with a newly appointed CEO, an internal promotion. After a period of turbulence, the organisation is looking keenly to its new leader to take the reins and drive the organisation forwards. The CEO and I are working on what steps he can practically take to innovate and ‘disrupt’ to achieve growth and success.


There is often a misguided notion that innovation necessarily requires a flash of inspiration. The definition of innovate is ‘to make changes, to introduce new ideas and methods’. John Chambers, CEO of Cisco, explains in an article about Staying Ahead (Harvard Business Review): “Our success at Cisco has been defined by how we anticipate, capture, and lead through market transitions. Over the years, I’ve watched iconic companies disappear as they failed to anticipate where the market was heading… Market transitions means making tough decisions and immersing ourselves in a process of disrupting the market and at times ourselves.”


When considering innovation in a changing market, here are six areas that I encourage my clients to consider:


  1. Strategy – Identify and preserve your core

Preservation may seem an odd starting point for innovation and change. But being clear on the core of your success gives you a solid foundation for innovation. When diversifying, it is important to identify what to preserve, and what to change.

Jim Collins, in his book ‘Good to Great’, asks three simple questions to identify your core: 1) What you are deeply passionate about? 2) What you can be the best in the world at? And 3) What best drives your economic engine?


The changes at my client’s organisation were threatening to impact its core. Get clear on what must be preserved and use this as a guiding principle.


  1. Talk to your customers

When looking for disruption and innovation, it is tempting to focus your attention on your competitors. Talk to your customers. 86% of CEOs believe that customers will demand more from their products over the next five years (PWC CEO Pulse Survey 2016). John Chambers said, “In many instances customers helped us spot a market shift and pointed us toward a new technology that would be useful in making the leap. That’s one reason I spend so much so much time listening to CIOs, CTOs, and CEOs during sales calls.”


So ask your clients: ‘What would you love that you don’t have right now?’ Remember businesses often start from a problem that has not been solved yet … think of Airbnb and Uber – find out from your customer the problems they want solving.


  1. Take a 360-degree view

Karl Moore and Mary Larson state in their Forbes article on Disruptive Planning that the CEO needs to provide a ‘crucial blend of rear-view vision, experience-based knowledge and prophetic insight’. For that, you need a broad perspective. Embrace a cross section of people beyond your customers when looking for input, both inside and outside your organisation, and be open to being challenged.


Several CEOs I work with make a point of testing ideas and thinking with groups of high potentials in their organisations on a regular basis. As part of my work with leaders, I facilitate ‘CEO Round Tables’ where a group of CEOs in non-conflicting industries get the opportunity to share challenges. The different ideas and solutions that are generated always result in useful insights. And be rounded and broad in your reading and information gathering. New ideas often come from seemingly disconnected fields, and you often detect shifts in the landscape in this way.


  1. Open yourself up to the new

In his HBR articleThe Five Characteristics of Successful Innovators’, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic says innovators are ‘pre-wired for novelty’ – they look for new experiences and variety in life. Constantly talk to new people – and if you find great people hire them. While everyone may not be in the position of having the resources to hire every great person they come across, actively seek out new people and new experiences.  One of my clients who had budgeted for graduate recruitment decided to double the intake because of the calibre of these individuals, and thought carefully about the projects they would be involved in to leverage their value.


  1. Make Decisions

In the article ‘What sets Successful CEOs Apart’ (HBR May-June 2017) the authors discovered that “high-performing CEOs do not necessarily stand out for making great decisions all the time; rather, they stand out for being more decisive.” Lack of direction is often more damaging than a wrong decision which can often be reversed, and sometimes it takes a wrong decision to get on the right path. They cite two questions to motivate yourself to act on decisions which I find very powerful:  first, what’s the impact if I get it wrong? And second, how much will it hold other things up if I don’t move on this? Make decisions, try things out, learn from the actions and evolve your ideas.


  1. Engage your people

The lonesome maverick battling against the doubters to emerge triumphant is an unhelpful image for creating innovation. To innovate, you must engage people. Building relationships and mobilising your people to move forwards with you is critical to success. Create a stakeholder map of who needs to be on board, and understand the concerns of those who express doubts. Get people’s opinions, share the project, get them involved on special exploratory projects.


Innovation and disruption involve considering many strategic options, and come from listening, learning, doing and growing. Something you can start today.


If you are a CEO or leader that wants to be at the top of their game, our bespoke executive and team programmes are designed to challenge and provoke creative thought for growth and competitive edge. To begin a conversation, please contact Oona at



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