Meaningful innovation (part one)

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Innovation is a word that gets thrown around a lot. In many sectors it has become an integral part of corporate jargon and has been overused to the point that many have forgotten its true meaning. In the current economic climate, where innovative thinking is vital to surmounting new challenges, companies cannot afford to stagnate.

Speaking at The Economist’s CFO Summit 2013, Hal Gregersen, Professor of Leadership at INSEAD, examined how CFOs can harvest fresh ideas and foster innovative thinking, to prepare their businesses for the future.

Disrupt or be Disrupted

Gregersen, who authored “The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators”, began his session by underlining the importance of continuous innovation. Kodak was given as an example. The company created the first camera developed for the consumer market and completely changed the nature of the photography industry.

Kodak later built the first commercially available electronic camera, disrupting the industry yet again.  Despite this history of innovation, the business was slow to adapt to the wave of digital cameras.

“I can imagine the discussion [at Kodak]; we’ve got this robust, great business, it’s got print film, we’re making lots of money and great margins off this product.”

Although Kodak developed a digital camera as far back as 1975, the company was reluctant to release a product that would cannibalise its business.  As a result of this unwillingness to embrace change, in January 2012, the company filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy Protection. The disruptor became the disrupted.

What do Innovators do Differently?

Intrigued by the ability of some companies to consistently develop fresh ideas, Gregersen set out to discover what gives innovators their spark. Working with a number of collaborators, he identified and approached individuals known for disrupting industries.
The list included Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Niklas Zennstrom, one of the founders of Skype.

“We saw patterns in what they were doing and how they were acting when they got the ideas which led to these incredibly disruptive companies. [We found] that they did think differently because they acted differently.”

Gregersen discovered that disruptors were usually people who constantly explore, observe and ask questions. He then considered whether this was a genetic trait. Studies on identical twins revealed that innovative thinking is two thirds nurture and one third nature. Based on this, it is clear that everyone has the ability to become more innovative.

Next week’s post will examine how Gregersen’s research can be put into practice.

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