Much to the dismay of countless business leaders everywhere, innovation doesn’t just happen by magic. Creating a pervasive innovation culture within any organization takes time, effort, and strong leadership. But if the importance of innovation is so universally acknowledged, why do so many struggle with it?

It’s no secret that well-established businesses find it much harder to innovate effectively than lean start-ups. This is because they tend to be overly fixated on optimizing existing business activity (i.e. the source of their current success), rather than taking the time to think about where the future of the business lies. Whilst perhaps understandable, it’s a foolish mentality.

The truth is that today, even well-established businesses are just one disruption away from oblivion. Just ask Blockbuster, Borders, or Blackberry. It’s not just the obvious ones either. One hundred years ago the average lifespan of a company was around 67 years. Today, that has dropped to just 15 years. So as a leader, what can you do if you’re being kept awake at night by innovation woes?

In most cases, the first and most important thing you can do is take a good look in the mirror. What are you personally doing (or not doing) to encourage an innovative mindset amongst your employees and colleagues? In fact, are you the main problem? In larger companies there’s a dangerous tendency amongst senior management to view innovation as a poisoned chalice. Everyone gets how important it is, but no one wants to be in the firing line if it all goes wrong.

Moving as far away from this mentality as possible is one of the most important things you can do. Yes, innovation is risky, and no, projects may not turn out the way you had hoped. But this doesn’t ever mean you should shy away from doing them. Remember, failure is only truly a failure if nothing is learned from it.

The most innovative business leaders today are like conductors. They don’t need to be the best musicians themselves but that’s not their role. They know they can hire other people to play the instruments far better than they ever could. Their sole focus is on being the best at directing the musicians as a whole to create the overall symphony. They know they don’t and won’t have all of the answers themselves and don’t let their ego get in the way. Equally importantly, they trust others and encourage them, never stifling thinking that’s different from their own. After all, the most innovative ideas can come from the unlikeliest of places!

In the next two blogs of this four blog series, we’ll look at some of the specific tactics that business leaders can employ to cultivate and nurture an innovative culture from within. But for now, remember that culture is bred from the top and as a leader, your actions speak louder than words. Innovation is all about getting people asking questions to ensure your business has a future, so if nobody is asking any questions, take a look at yourself before pointing the finger at others.


Harvey Wade

Innovation Program Manager

Cisco Services Innovation Excellence Center (SIEC)