Four Top Ways Leaders Can Enable Innovation

By the SMU Social Media Team

Warren G. Bennis, a US pioneer of leadership studies, once said, “Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.”

With technology advancing the world at breakneck speed, and the “innovate or die” maxim at the forefront of every business strategy, strong leadership matters more now than ever before to steer an organisation forward in the midst of change. Beyond generating grand new ideas and staging viral product launch keynotes, modern leaders need to enable their organisations to identify and prioritise the right problems to solve, in order to realise the bigger picture of long-term innovation.

According to Gerard George, Dean and Lee Kong Chian Chair Professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the Singapore Management University (SMU) Lee Kong Chian School of Business, leaders of today should avoid the pitfalls of disruption by recognising areas of vulnerability and mastering the art of problem solving. Here are four other ways leaders can enable innovation in their field or organisation, as suggested by Gerard in his article, “Navigating innovation: A Leader’s Guide”.


1. Rising above the day-to-day

Rather than being bogged down by daily task execution, firms need to be nimble enough to embrace change and seize new opportunities in order to innovate. Recognising opportunities to enhance or renew a firm’s business model can help firms adapt to and hedge against industry disruptions caused by change.

Prof George brought up how companies may expand their product and service offering through partnerships and digital investments, like how DBS has collaborated with telco Singtel to offer mobile banking service PayLah in order to hold its own against Fintech companies intruding into the banking space.

He added: “It is through partnerships and digital investments such as these, which leverage existing competencies, channels and value networks, that large and established firms can adapt to disruption.”


2. Shedding the myopia 

Another way to innovate is to start looking beyond what you are familiar with by extending your sights to discover new and creative ways to stay ahead of the market. Rather than retain a protectionist mindset, leaders need to recognise that industry boundaries are breaking down and current competitors may well become future collaborators. According to Prof George, leaders of established and incumbent firms should look to collaboration and partnerships not only with industry leaders, but small startups as well.

“Take Web 2.0 for example, which was ushered in by organisations that facilitate mass collaboration through open platforms and sharing protocols. Open-source software, social media, crowdfunding, multiplayer online games and social production have created extraordinary value. Although Web 2.0 organisations have wrought much disruption, firms that ‘stay connected’, share information and collaborate have a better chance of understanding and adapting to new realities such as these, as and when they emerge.”


3.  Defining what innovation means to your business

Disruption lies at the heart of a startup’s business mission. Without an existing customer base to satisfy and/or hefty investments and infrastructure holding it back, startups can afford to explore more high-risk propositions that may appeal to a more niched and underserved market. Meanwhile, established industry incumbents may safeguard against disruption from new entrants by incrementally investing in innovation—instead of aiming to be a gamechanger and exposing themselves to risk and the ire of stakeholders. After all, disruptive innovation is but just one way of innovating

Leaders could also build a culture of innovation within their organisations by incentivising employees to question assumptions and push for new ideas. Google, for example, encourages employees to devote up to 20 per cent of their working hours to pursuing their own projects—thereby building a spirit of innovation and collaboration.


4. Building on what you are good at

While pursuing the new with collaborations, partnerships and digitising where possible, firms should always keep in mind and innovate on their core competencies.

“This goes back to the firm’s variation of cost and the pursuit of competency enhancing innovation, namely pursuing innovation that is aligned to organisational competency and the target customer base,” says Prof George.

“An internal culture of sharing needs to be complemented with an openness to ideas from both an inside-out and outside-in approach to encourage exploration and incorporate the ‘unfamiliar’—in other words, learning to share and being more open.”

By building a new ecosystem of collaboration within employees, and a selective sharing of ideas with external partners, leaders can create a model of innovation that is sustainable and realistic.


Click here to read the full Asian Management Insights article, “Navigation Innovation: A Leader’s Guide” by Professor Gerard George.