Innovation. It’s one of those buzzy business words you hear in commercials for cars or even vacuum cleaners or perhaps read in full-page ads printed in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. But what does it really mean to innovate in 2015?
It’s not enough anymore for a company or its CEO to say that innovation is a priority. In today’s environment, they must be prepared to back that up with action both internally and externally.
And it’s not just about developing the next big thing. It’s actually about keeping the whole company relevant and healthy. It’s about having the ability to adapt, particularly to a marketplace which is evolving faster than at any other point in history. It’s about bringing diverse thinkers to the table, sometimes in non-traditional ways, from all levels of stakeholders.
To stay relevant, a company needs to find its unique voice and that happens by first realizing that everyone is starting from the same sets of data. The key to having a breakthrough in innovation is to find where a company can differentiate itself. Corporate leaders can begin that process by creating the right healthy environment in which those game changing ideas (whether little or big) have a chance to rise to the surface.
So let’s say you’ve got that great idea, the question then becomes, ‘how do you frame it, then how do you steer it?’ For a CEO it’s essential to focus on “the what and the why” and let your talented teams figure out “the how”. Too many times innovation is pre-wired with “this is what I want and how I want you to do it”. The “how” should instead be a way to engage your team and inspire them to take ownership of the innovation process.
Never forget that brilliance exists at all levels of your corporation. Bring them together, share with them the business case and explain what you’re trying to accomplish, then feel the excitement as you witness that team develop. Get out of their way, and they will drive innovation. There’s a human passion about innovation that a well-constructed and well-steered team can ignite.
A healthy company is always raising the bar – and it’s happening at all levels – particularly at the individual level. Finding ways to improve knowledge sharing within an organization is an essential component to maintaining a healthy company. A key point that most business leaders miss is what I call the ‘daily innovation’. It’s the little thing – the tiny idea that sometimes emerges from the most surprising of sources – that can simply change the game.
Ultimately that whole, healthy company and the culture you’ve inspired will feel the benefits of whatever the innovation might be. Oh, and don’t forget to reward those who made it happen. Some innovations might happen in a day but others take years to see to completion, and the people who brought you to that place along the way deserve the credit. This full cycle has become a hallmark of the most innovative, healthy, and successful companies of this era.
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George Chavel is CEO of Sodexo North America (U.S. and Canada) and CEO Sodexo Healthcare Worldwide. He has announced that he will retire at the end of this calendar year after more than two decades at Sodexo.