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Finding the Right Road to Successful Innovation

One of my favorite clients was Shaun B. Higgins, when he was CFO and later European president for the bottler Coca-Cola Enterprises. Shaun is a character, and he enjoyed repeating that funny and useful axiom, "If you don't know where you are going, any road will get you there." From Shaun, I learned an important lesson about innovation: Innovators need to know where they are going and behave as if what they're doing is the most natural thing in the world.

Innovation often fails. The failure rate of new technologies or business ideas is estimated at between 50 percent and 90 percent. The success rate of large technology projects is consistent with these findings, hovering at around 30 percent year after year.

At the same time, innovation is critical to a company's success, if not survival. Fortunately, we can learn from companies that have created grand successes, reinventing how organizations and individuals use technology. While your innovations might not revolutionize an industry, you can still make innovation a natural and successful part of doing business.

Ideas That Make Sense

A key insight from successful innovators is that their innovations are never wacky ideas. Innovations that work derive from a clear insight about a problem that needs solving, and they're linked to a strong implementation capability.

Where brainstorming is designed to generate an idea a minute, innovation requires a focused commitment to executing a single idea. (For more on finding new ideas, see "How Collaboration Enables Affordable Innovation.")

Bill Gates saw the future of the PC as a tool, and he decided to exploit the power of standard hardware to provide the platform for standard software. Hasso Plattner of SAP understood the potential benefits to companies of integrating a full suite of corporate software and of using established consulting firms to sell and implement it. Sergey Brin and Larry Page recognized that the search engine wasn't a consumer product, it was a corporate platform for managing information. And Mark Zuckerberg saw the power of human communities to beat viral marketing as a way to spread the word. Of course, Steve Jobs is a serial innovator--advancing new models for computers, animation, media and personal communications.

Natural Leadership

Management legend Peter Drucker understood that management is a social science; its success depends on how well human beings interact, rather than on following predetermined processes.

Innovation demands pure, instinctive management. You may not have conventional wisdom to fall back on when determining how projects should proceed.

Meanwhile, your team needs your energy and passion to see the project through. Once you are committed to executing a single, innovative idea, it is important to behave as you would when leading any business ­initiative: setting a direction and guiding your team to the goal. As Shaun Higgins might say, now that you know where you're going, choose the best road to get there.

Innovation comes from the top. But you don't have to be famous, or a CEO, to lead it. All leaders are at the top in one way or another; if not as the head of a company, then by running a business function, a department, or a team. Simply be innovative, and then act naturally.

Jack Bergstrand is founder and CEO of Brand Velocity. He is author of Reinvent Your Enterprise and the new e-book Making Knowledge Work for You. He is a former CIO of the Coca-Cola Company, and was CFO of Coca-Cola Beverages. Contact him at jb@brandvelocity.com.


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