Creating a Culture of Innovation


In our Leaders on Leaders series, Karen Greenbaum explores today's top trends impacting global leadership with leaders from the world's top executive search and leadership advisory firms.

In this episode, Karen speaks with Alastair Paton, Managing Partner, UK, and Chair of the Global Board at Signium.

KAREN: Welcome to the Leaders on Leaders podcast from the Global Association of Executive Search and Leadership Consultants. I’m Karen Greenbaum, AESC President and CEO. In Leaders on Leaders, we explore today’s top leadership trends impacting global business with leaders from the world’s top executive search and leadership advisory firms. Today, we’ll be discussing developing an organizational culture of innovation. I’m joined today by Alastair Paton, Managing Partner, UK, and Chair of the Global Board at Signium. Alastair, welcome, and why don't we begin with you telling us about Signium?

ALASTAIR: Thanks, Karen, very much for the opportunity for this conversation. It's an interesting subject that we’re going to talk about, so I hope I can share some useful insights. Signium is an executive search and leadership consulting firm with a global presence and a history dating back to Chicago in the 1950s when the search profession was evolving from management consultancy. We offer the scale, the reach, and the rigor of the largest global firms coupled with the passion, the client focus, and [partner-related] approach to the best local boutiques. We’re very conscious our market’s evolving fast. We ourselves are adapting at the moment to offer broader sets of leadership advisory services. So innovation, that we’re going to talk about, is rather important to us as an organization at the moment.

KAREN: That's terrific, so let’s get into it. Businesses worldwide are constantly seeking innovation. In your experience, what are the top attributes of leaders today who foster a culture of innovation?

ALASTAIR: Yes, good question. I think, personally, innovation is the application of solutions to meet new customer or consumer needs. So I’d argue that effective leadership in this space needs individuals who are capable of harnessing both sides of their brain. They have to recognize to encourage and to champion creativity in their organization, but they’ve also got to put in place the disciplines and the processes necessary to bring new ideas to market successfully [for] any two different things, and it's really hard to do this because the two skillsets are not often found in the same person.

KAREN: That's really interesting and a good way to put it, using both sides of the brain. So creative thinking along with collaboration and diversity and inclusion often rank as a top ingredient for an innovative culture. What does creativity in business look like and how is it unleashed? How are creativity and innovation different?

ALASTAIR: Yes, I think many people confuse or think about the words differently and I’m not into semantics too much, but I do think creativity and innovation are very different. I think creativity is all about allowing your mind to conceive new ideas. It's potentially quite unstructured. It's messy. It's subjective and it's very hard to measure, so it can be uncomfortable, I think, at times that creative kind of environment to some people. It requires, as you mentioned, a wide range of people, a great diverse group with different ways of thinking, and you need the time and the space to explore new ideas without always judging them.

I think innovation, on the other hand, is very measurable. It's completely measurable. It's about bringing change to often quite stable systems or processes. I think innovation is really about applying the creative resources an organization has to design an effective solution, and then ideally to assess it and implement it to make a return on it. We see lots of businesses that we work with who, I think, are very creative. We see much fewer examples of businesses that are genuinely innovative, I think.

KAREN: You raised the issue of measurement and so let me probe on that with a question. What are some ways business leaders can measure innovation in their organization?

ALASTAIR: I think innovation is about being the tangible outcome of creativity, so it follows that it should be possible to measure an innovation. I think organizations have to set up their own measures depending on what they’re trying to assess, I suppose, but I think one of the things we see a lot of is just a simple focus on measuring products or services, or service lines that had been launched in a recent period – 12, 18 months – and look at the amount of profit or revenue that they’re generating compared to those products and services that have been around for longer.

In the organizations that I’ve worked with – Unilever, for example, for 15 years – our innovation cycles were very long and our assessment processes took a long time before we launched anything. Now, I think businesses have to do things much quicker, so when they measure innovation, it has to be done quickly and they have to assess it, amend it if they need to, and then continue with their products or services adapted moving forward.

KAREN: That quicker cycle actually leads me to another question and that's a phrase we hear is “fail fast.” What does this mean in terms of today’s business environment and why is this something talked about now?

ALASTAIR: Yes, I think the word “failure” is fascinating. We did [...] work with an event, actually, that we’ve held here where we’ve looked at failure and why some people in some cultures, actually, aren't averse to the word “failure” at all. They don't like to feel like they’re failing. But I think the reality is that today’s businesses don't have a lot of time to pause and reflect customers and consumers and markets with varying patience. So, businesses need to try new things, but they need to do it more quickly, and they need to get products or services to market. They need to assess them quickly and adapt fast. So it doesn’t mean necessarily allowing new ideas to fail completely, but it does mean recognizing fast what has gone wrong or what’s not right; adapting, developing, amending, so that the market feedback is implemented quickly and you make the changes necessary so that your innovation, whatever it might have been, actually does look in the market and does deliver what you want it to.

KAREN: That actually leads perfectly into my final question, which is: What are the greatest challenges to innovation for organizations today? It sounds like speed is one of them. What are the greatest challenges?

ALASTAIR: Yes, I think innovation is essential, so it's got to happen because when customer or consumer needs change, you need to do something to respond, and it isn’t always an instant success. I’m sure you’ve heard people say, “It took me 10 years to become an overnight success,” and this has some kind of basis and truth. A firm, I think, needs to commit to creativity, have good processes of development and for launching adaptation; and this takes time and it takes patience and commitment from the top. I think the two biggest challenges to all of this are probably number one, our short-term market view which is often driven by results and a need to move forward if something isn’t working immediately, but another one is something I mentioned earlier, which is about the fact we’re all human and we just naturally fear failure. So the idea of trying something and failing is always considered to be something that you don't do in business and yet if you want to genuinely innovate, you have to be prepared to try things, learn from, adapt, and grow. You have to be quite brave and I think that's another thing, our challenge is we need brave leaders who are prepared to try new things and test them out and learn from them.

KAREN: I love that. What a great way to end this particular segment – brave leaders. Alastair, thank you for taking the time to share your insights today. Listeners, thank you for joining us for Leaders on Leaders. For our next Leaders on Leaders discussion, stay tuned to Thank you and have a great day.

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