Innovation, Leadership, and the Rise of the Corporate Irritant

“The job of the CEO is to be the biggest irritant at the company. This constant irritation challenges you, helping you to become something of value, much like a pearl is made from a grain of sand—an irritant—in its journey to something great.” —Vivek Ranadivé

Does your organization have a corporate irritant? Not the kind who prattles on in meetings or leaves a mess in the breakroom. The kind who asks uncomfortable questions and pushes co-workers out of their comfort zones and into a culture of progress and innovation.

If that role doesn’t exist in your organization, it’s time to create it. A title like corporate irritant, intrapreneur, or even Chief Innovation Officer is not required, but someone needs to be responsible for nurturing your organization’s pearls of wisdom and bringing them to the marketplace.

In today’s exponential economy, the role of innovation leader is too important to leave to chance. Today’s most innovative organizations and business leaders are sometimes surrounded by a mythology that makes innovation appear as a magical epiphany that suddenly changes the course of a corporation. But that is a dangerous notion. The larger the company, the more important this role becomes. Someone must be responsible for asking tough questions about exponential technologies and finding future opportunities outside the organization’s current portfolio.

Innovation enters the mainstream

Innovation is not the exclusive province of visionaries and outliers. In times of exponential change, organizations that drive innovation must do so through committed participation at every organizational level. One of the “strategic tensions” required for effective leadership is pursuing disruptive innovation while maintaining the organization’s core strengths and revenue goals, according to Harvard Business Review.

Today’s organizations—whether corporate, educational, government, or non-profit—must develop a clear view of what innovation means for their own unique challenges and opportunities. Once an organization defines its innovation goals, the attendant strategies, processes, and organizational development can follow. More than 67 of Fortune 100 companies now have at least one innovation center, according to Deloitte.

If your organization doesn’t have a clear plan to manage innovation, who should lead the charge? Definitely a visionary leader who can generate the ideas, capture them, and create a process to turn those ideas into profitable products and services. This person is responsible for driving the vision of the organization and its success in an uncertain future—which involves asking uncomfortable questions like:

  • Does our organization have a dedicated leader or team, outside of our core R&D, that is responsible for driving change, generating and capturing ideas, and moving from idea to scale?
  • What is our target breakdown for new projects in evolutionary (Horizon 1), revolutionary (Horizon 2), and disruptive (Horizon 3) areas?
  • Who are the competitors, outside our space, who could potentially disrupt our business?
  • What exponential technologies—such as artificial intelligence, big data, blockchain, 3D printing, and IoT—present the biggest opportunities for our organization’s future?
  • Is our strategy to lead or be a fast follower? In an exponential world, if we are not leading, how do we catch up?
  • How well are we digitizing our business?
  • How many experiments, pilot programs, or Minimum Viable Products (MVPs) are underway in our organization? How many of them are moonshots with huge risk and growth potential?
  • Is our learning and development organization aligned with developing the talent we need to fulfill our strategic vision for innovation? What about recruiting that talent? Do we have a network of agencies or consultants to help drive projects where we have a talent gap?
  • Is our culture one of exponential mindsets, healthy competition, and constructive debate, or preserving status quo and sacred cows?

Traditional business processes were designed for traditional times

“If you look at history, innovation doesn’t come just from giving people incentives; it comes from creating environments where their ideas can connect” Stephen Johnson

The first priority of innovation leaders is to create an environment that supports big ideas, risk-taking, and dynamic growth. Along with culture change, leaders must obtain not just buy-in, but the sponsorship and resources needed to move forward. In my own experience, transparency was the biggest tool in my toolbox; having dynamic metrics that showcased activity and returns is critical for continuous executive buy-in.

Exponential times call for new business models and practices to meet the complex challenges and risks of the future—a moving target that’s continually reassessed and redefined. The innovation leader’s role is by definition a sort of dilemma: How do you know how to prepare for the unknowable?

A challenging role? No doubt, but it is one that’s key to successfully innovating in the future.