Posted on 11/18/2015

Five characteristics of winning innovators

Innovation is an equal-opportunity phenomenon. The public and the media tend to restrict the term “innovative companies” to startups from Silicon Valley and the Northwest, but business leaders in Seattle aren’t the only ones who go sleepless developing great ideas into great brands. 

Many traditional old-line corporations have picked up the banner of innovation and transformed failing or outmoded product lines with transformational ingenuity. Kodak became a producer of touch screen sensors, among other innovations, while rival Polaroid innovated with a digital camera enabled with Wi-Fi for photo sharing. AT&T, once known as the telegraph company, today is a powerhouse in wireless mobile and Internet communications.

Companies like these demonstrate that creating a brand of innovation depends far less on the origins of a business than on its leadership, culture and processes. With the right approach, any company can become more innovative, and many brands can be reinvigorated with smart ideas that are both marketable and manufacturable.

In developing communications and marketing strategies for technology companies nationwide over the past 15 years, I’ve become convinced that winning innovators possess five characteristics:

  1. Strategic vision and leadership. Very often the vision for innovation emerges from leadership during a crisis or a severe economic downturn. In these times, risk-taking becomes essential, confidence becomes critical, and innovation becomes the differentiator between survival and collapse. Those same factors make for powerful innovators with strategic vision and leadership. This vision must come from an individual, not from a company’s mission statement or org chart—people rally around people. The CEO must not only articulate a vision but also must publish it and make it part of the company mantra. That’s when things start to happen. Courage and risk-taking will keep innovation churning.
  2. An open-source culture. Companies that operate on the principle that there are no bad ideas invariably develop the best ones. The executive team must set a tone of openness and inclusion, democratizing the process for innovation internally and externally. The model for this philosophy is open-source code. For decades, technology companies closely guarded their hundreds of millions of lines of code, believing it to be the core of their innovation. When the open-source movement emerged, many of those companies discovered that their code was not the innovation, but rather what they did with it was their differentiator. Having a better capability is advancement; applying those capabilities in new ways is innovation. Practical ideas for new applications emerge when leaders treat all employees equally, creating opportunities for innovation to happen.
  3. A proprietary process. Each company needs its own method by which innovations can bubble up and become commercialized. Innovative ideas should progress through a qualifying process that is unique to the organization’s business needs and vision. For example, designers and engineers working on automotive interiors, drivetrains and aircraft are constantly seeking ways to apply advanced materials, from flax and hemp to magnesium and carbon. They are all working with similar materials, but those materials must find different routes to success for their various applications, through different processes specific to the needs being considered.
  4. The ability to be disruptive. Some business sectors have seemed unalterable for decades, or even centuries. Taxi services in 2010 were much the same as they were in 1910, though the vehicles differed. Hotels have provided the same core services for as long as travelers have needed a pillow under their heads. But technologies emerging in just the past few years have severely disrupted these industries, with ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft and the house-sharing services of Airbnb. In the financial world, Metromile initiated an entirely different way of envisioning car insurance, selling it by the mile. A bold vision can move entire categories, even in the most stubborn arenas. Disruptive technology commands a lot of attention and can build brands of innovation in a matter of months, rather than decades.
  5. The insight to attach innovation to relatable trends. Such trends as urbanization, transportation, climate change and terrorism have been major stimulators of innovations. New brands have emerged and old brands have adapted to provide solutions for energy and security problems, to transportation needs in re-densifying city cores, and—as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has shown—to the needs in underdeveloped countries for clean water and medical technology. Even the rise of women in the workplace has spurred innovations, enabling them to shop online for clothing, personalize their fashion styles and keep up with trends without consuming the weeks of time that such efforts once required.

At the foundation of these characteristics lies a solid communications strategy and a commitment to communicating openly both internally and externally. Companies that communicate well rarely find themselves in crisis situations—and if they do, they invariably emerge from a crisis stronger.  Communications bring innovation to life and to the marketplace, and the strongest leaders harness well-considered communications strategies to drive their innovation and their futures.

About the Author

Lisa Vallee-Smith | Airfoil Group


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