I’ve had many bosses who spoke about the need for “flawless execution” in our organization. They spoke of delivering with excellence, achieving plan, and a relentless pursuit of productivity in our work. And then they spoke about how innovative we were going to be – how we were going to try new things, adapt and increase our pace, and become more agile.

And when they were done you could look around the room and see confusion and fear.

“How can I take chances, try new things, adapt and increase pace, and be more agile while I am delivering with excellence, making no mistakes, achieving my plan, and delivering productivity?” was the thought going through everyone’s mind… “Aren’t those the exact opposite approaches?”…

And then nothing changed.

Defining Innovation with Execution

In some of my reading recently I came across this same topic and it made reflect on those bosses and their approach. Did they mean to stifle innovation and change? Were they even aware that they were preventing the innovation that they were talking about prioritizing? (And perhaps… Did they even know what Innovation was and/or what it required?)

One piece of research that I found was from McKinsey which stated:

84% of global executives believe innovation is extremely important to the future of my company but only 6% are satisfied with their innovation performance.

Clearly the answer to my questions are that the leaders I had experienced were not alone… globally leaders are less than happy with the execution of their Innovation programs.

I found another piece that suggested the following equation for Innovation which I think captures the reason for these results quite well:

Innovation = Creativity + Execution of the right ideas + Delivery of business value

We have lots of executives and leaders who have focused on the need for Creativity – they are always looking for ways to increase ideation in their organization, implementing “innovation” centres, building “digital hubs” which encourage new technology ideas, and bringing in technology “soothsayers” who have a seemingly endless array of shiny “tech proof of concepts” to show everyone which will “disrupt” their business.

But when it gets to the second and third component of the equation many leaders have lost their way (or weren’t aware that it was important in the first place).

Let’s look at each one individually:

Execution of the RIGHT Ideas

Let’s go back to the initial demands of our leaders:

  • Delivery excellence
  • Make the plan
  • Productivity

Given the demand for “flawless execution” on these drivers we find that there isn’t much room for “innovative” ideas or for experimentation to figure out what the “right” ideas are. If we are to make plan, deliver execution, and improve productivity we are forced to focus on incremental improvements and small changes that ensure our success. It is much easier to deliver with excellence and make plan when it is incremental improvements and changes we are after.

Identifying the “right” ideas, however, probably requires us to rethink the problems. We need to change our lens, try new things, reexamine business models, do ethnographic research with our customers, survey parallel markets, and EXPERIMENT. Inherently all of those activities don’t support the three goals we were given at the start of the year… so they don’t happen.

Delivery of Business Value

The challenge with this one comes from the emergency of “technology as value” in leadership circles over the past 5-10 years. Many businesses that are supported by technology and which are seeing disruptive technological forces in their industry have started to think of themselves as “technology companies” even though their core business value is derived from something else. In banking for example I have heard more than one industry executive claim that their organization was now a “technology company” despite the fact that all of their revenue, customer service, and shareholder benefit came from traditional banking business lines. While I agree that technology plays a key role in how their business delivers value, I think it is a dangerous position to take that that means that you are now a “technology company”.

Business value needs to be defined through your business model – it needs to consider your customers, suppliers, delivery model, channels, and all of the dimensions of the business model canvas which will ultimately define the “WHY” of your business success.

If you chase “technology” for disruption and value and ignore the core BUSINESS VALUE drivers of your own business you will very quickly find yourself with a lot of shiny ideas and not much value (or revenue, or earnings, or customers).

Delivering Flawless Execution in Innovation

So then what do you have to do to deliver flawlessly in Innovation? Once source I found identified three key enablers to execution that are very aligned with my own beliefs:

  1. Innovation Culture and Creativity in Leadership
    The executive team needs to not only talk about Innovation, but also practice it. That means training and workshops, learning and experimenting, and bringing them into the trenches of innovation not to be leaders, but to play as peers to the innovation teams. You can’t build an innovative culture with lip service and the best innovative companies know this. At IDEO you will find founders beside interns and directors beside new hires all playing equal roles on an innovation team. Bringing your leadership to the table will drastically change the conversation and behaviours when the team can see them learning with them.
  2. Resource Optimization and Commitment
    Innovation isn’t an idea problem in most cases, it is an execution problem. If you don’t dedicate the right resources to the front end of the process where ideas are refined, businesses cases built, experiments run, ethnographic customer research collected, then you won’t have the ability to make good investment decisions in new ideas. Building a strong innovation pipeline requires work to be done at the front end which helps you identify and articulate what specific problem each idea solves, what their potential opportunity is, and what is required from the organization to start to deliver it.
  3. Innovation Framework
    Much like “going agile” in technology delivery, many executives believe that innovation is a “loose” process which allows for speed and flexibility and which doesn’t require rigor in execution. After all innovation is a “creative” pursuit right? The reality is that the best innovation programs have strong frameworks of process, mechanics, and supporting organizational structures which drive execution. Each “innovation” flows through a standard pipeline which helps expand, validate, experiment, define, and ultimately commercialize those ideas that are worthwhile. Those same processes and frameworks also prevent bad or mis-timed ideas from taking up investment by killing or parking them at the appropriate times.

Each of these supporting pillars has to include leadership support and executive sponsorship, effective collaboration across units (business lines, technology groups), strong project planning discipline, and progressive risk management through effective controls and transparent communications.

Being innovative isn’t just a “footnote” in a report or an “add-on” to an executive speech. It requires commitment and a different way of thinking about the work. It requires leaders to think differently about flawless execution. It requires a real commitment to action. Without any of those things Innovation will remain an underperforming component of an executive’s portfolio.


When you are thinking about how you implement innovation in your company you can get help. Our experience and expertise is in designing innovation frameworks, training executives in the art of innovation, and implementing the change programs necessary to make innovation real in your company. Contact us today for more information about how we can help.

About Tim Empringham, MBA
Tim Empringham is a passionate advocate for Innovation in organizations of all sizes as a mechanism to drive growth, create uncontested market space, create new customer value, and drive efficiency into the internal organization. His focus is on disruption of thinking and markets through integrative thinking, structured Innovation frameworks, and leadership development of Innovation and Change leaders within the organization.

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