When it comes to innovation, focus is way more important than creativity.
I often hear that innovation is primarily about ideas and creativity. With over 20 years of speaking with top innovators around the globe, I am biased to disagree.
I believe that when it comes down to it, innovation is about leadership, communication, and execution. Without strong, informed leadership, there is no strategy, and without a strategy, there is no innovation. And communication and execution are what separate ideas from results.
To be truly innovative, it’s not enough to proclaim weak platitudes like “Be creative,” “Spark your imagination,” or “Think Bold”—let’s not confuse corporate propaganda with actual strategy.
To keep their organization innovative, leaders across levels and functions must hold themselves responsible for clearly defined pathways, actions, and measurable outcomes. Remember, innovation doesn’t happen naturally—so an environment for innovation must be incentivized and supported.
As I write in Fearless Innovation, when helping others shape their innovation strategy, I often think about the work of Abraham Maslow. If you’re not familiar with Maslow, he was a brilliant twentieth-century American psychologist, best known for developing the concept of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, typically depicted as a pyramid consisting of five levels that address our material and immaterial human needs.
At the bottom level, we have our most basic physiological needs, such as food, shelter, and clothing. The next level up is safety, covering aspects like personal safety and financial security. Level three is that of friendship, family, and a sense of connection, known as the love and belonging level. The fourth level is esteem, including self-esteem, status, and the feeling of accomplishment. And the top level is self-actualization, basically a level that’s all about being the best people we can be, focused on a sense of morality, personal development, and creativity.
I believe that when it comes to innovation, any goal can fall under one of four main categories:
Aspirational Innovation. Human aspirations are a key driving factor, and pretty much every innovation throughout history originally resulted from an individual or a group of individuals pursuing their ambitions. When it comes to the business environment, ambition, curiosity, and legacy play a major role in many leaders’ plans, decisions, and strategies.
Innovation for Survival. Survival is the market position you need to retain to remain in business. If your competitors are on top of innovation and you aren’t, it’s likely that you’ll see a negative change in your market share, or your entire market might just go away. As a goal, “just surviving” may not sound all that exciting, but if you remember Maslow’s pyramid, basic survival is essential to prosperity and growth.
Innovation for efficiency. Operational efficiency relies on optimizing processes and costs in an effort to increase the speed of production or time to market. This goal, and any of its
Innovation for growth. Growth requires the greatest attention to the future. Here, your company shapes or creates new markets and increases its footprint and revenues. Ideally, innovation will ideally always lead to growth over time.
These innovation goals do not always come in a particular order and will vary based on current market conditions, as well as the maturity of your organization. If you’re a sole proprietor launching a new project, you may have different goals than a well-established corporation whose business model is quickly becoming obsolete. Then again, there are times when even their goals will overlap. Just like in the pyramid, as one set of needs is met, others arise, and they always will. Whether you’re focusing on one or all four, these goals will develop into an actionable innovation strategy.
Many might disagree, and my experience shows that a constant state of creativity does not move a company forward and could be counter-productive to getting results. To survive and grow, organizations need to develop actionable goals and strategies, mapped out in practical terms, that align horizontally and vertically, while identifying where innovation is necessary and efforts should be invested.
Remember, developing a clear innovation strategy is just the first step—you still have to execute on it, and you will surely pivot with time. Taking accountability and communicating to spread clear and measurable goals is where it all begins.