Today, businesses in all industries must find new ways to innovate and reinvent themselves to survive in the digital economy. According to Klecha & Co., “Business leaders believe two out of five of the top-ranked companies in their industries won’t exist in the next five years, making innovation a matter of survival.” And Gartner predicts that, while 70% of businesses are now becoming or preparing to become digital businesses, only 30% of these efforts will be successful.
My peers who are leading disruptive innovation programs at major companies often ask me, “What’s the most critical factor in developing the latest breakthrough? Is it the big idea or big funding? Inspiration or perspiration? Imagination or discipline? Taking risks or following processes?”
It’s all of the above, but none of the above is the single biggest factor. Turning a brilliant concept into a monetized product, solution or service requires one other vital ingredient. By far, in two decades of experience creating my own solutions and leading co-innovation programs, I’ve found that the most critical factor is communication.
Innovation is communication.
Communication, including the rare art of listening, is more necessary than ever in our digital age as the pace of change accelerates exponentially, technology becomes more complex, and entire industries get disrupted overnight with unforeseen business models. Simply put, people listen mostly to respond rather than to understand. However, digitization demands active listening to the ecosystem in order to survive and develop collaborative strategies with startups, partners, and customers around the world
Chris Anderson, the curator of TED Talk, said, “Every meaningful element of human progress has happened only because humans have shared ideas with each other and then collaborated to turn those ideas into reality. From the first time our ancestors teamed up to take down a mammoth to Neil Armstrong’s first step onto the moon, people have turned spoken words into astonishing shared achievements.”
I too firmly believe that communication — two-way communication — can mean the difference between success and failure when it comes to innovation. Here are three key reasons why innovation is communication today:
Inclusion And Diversity
Today’s most innovative organizations recognize that game-changing ideas can come from anywhere and anyone, and they’re encouraging greater diversity and inclusion. In “Why diversity matters,” McKinsey & Company found that the most ethnically diverse companies in their industries were 35% more likely to outperform their peers and the most gender-diverse were 15% more likely to earn better financial returns. Cisco’s own research shows that inclusive practices were the second biggest enabler of IoT innovations, right behind the quality of technology infrastructure.
Greater inclusion places enormous importance on the ability of diverse organizations and teams to communicate clearly, consistently, and respectfully with each other. At Cisco, we run an annual innovation challenge for all 74,000-plus employees companywide, encouraging employees to team up, disrupt, and co-innovate, form diverse teams, tap into their own passions and bring their ideas to life.
If you are trying to become more innovative, communications should underpin your entire effort from start to finish. You must work with employee communications, human relations, business unit leaders, and the C-suite, including the CEO, to reinforce the importance of employee innovation to the company’s strategic direction. It’s critical to hone key messages conveyed by executives and others at companywide meetings and events, in videos, articles, and presentations.
In Silicon Valley, startups rely on nearly everyone to contribute their strengths to develop game changers. In big companies, the process tends to be more bureaucratic, siloed, and political, which stifles open communication and progress.
First, the makeup of an innovation team is at least as important as the idea itself. Innovation is more of a team sport with diverse players rather than the traditional approach of like-minded engineers following rigid processes with a little perspective from the outside world. Winning innovations come from cross-functional teams harnessing marketing, sales, human resources, operations, engineering, or business development. With open communication, innovators challenge each other, validate and co-develop truly marketable solutions — not science experiments.
Elon Musk, the poster child for innovation, said, “Talent is extremely important. It's like a sports team, the team that has the best individual player will often win, but then there's a multiplier from how those players work together and the strategy they employ.”
Companies should invest in a strong communication platform to foster team-based innovation. Repeated messages must empower and inspire go-getters to take risks without judgment or penalty. Guided by HR’s “People Deal” manifesto, my company pervasively communicates via multimedia channels the attitudes of innovation, such as be urgently curious, don’t go it alone, empower and supporting, exploring diverse perspectives, stay ambitious, create a legacy of value and discover and engage.
The days of the lonely innovator working alone at night in a back room or garage are long gone — if they ever really existed in the first place. Today, nobody can innovate alone because of the complexity of technology and market applications. Today’s mantra is all about hyper co-innovation, where solution providers, customers, partners — and yes, employees — learn, collaborate and develop together.
Many companies have set up innovation centers to showcase and co-develop solutions with their ecosystems. It’s critical to have global and local innovation centers, which serve as working labs and listening outposts. Here, employees can work alongside partners to share best practices and failures, and develop and, most importantly, commercialize go-to-market solutions. In the end, everyone wins.
We cannot overstate the importance of listening.
The ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes is known to have said, “We have two ears and one tongue so that we would listen more and talk less.” Fast forward to management guru Peter Drucker who said, “To improve communications, work not on the utter, but the recipient.” In all innovation programs, whether internal or external, good things happen only by listening, understanding, and valuing other perspectives.
Without the power of communication — two-way communication — few if any innovations that better our lives and livelihoods would advance beyond the idea.