A culture of innovation sustains reinvention and breathes life into the organization itself. As high-speed, ever-connected networks and maturing digital technologies enhance ties between organizations and their stakeholders, opportunities to innovate processes, products, and services emerge that were unthinkable a few years ago. With such unmistakable mega-trends in the business environment, the board of directors has a role in ensuring that the organization it serves is not missing out on opportunities to innovate and, as a result, running the risk of getting swept aside by the forces of disruptive change. In this context, the often-referenced adage of “disrupt or be disrupted” gives way to the harsher specter of “innovate or die.”
For organizations that make innovation a priority, the process has traditionally involved designating responsible individuals, setting performance expectations linked to entity objectives, allowing designated innovators to operate in a risk-free environment, monitoring their progress using appropriate metrics, and then holding them accountable for results. However, for most organizations, innovation has been opportunistic and ad hoc.
For innovation to reach its full potential in the digital age, a culture that emphasizes innovation must also encourage diversity, collaboration, empowerment, continuous learning, ingenuity, change enablement, and team performance. Accordingly, it is important to the board’s oversight of the innovative culture to understand how the organization should position itself, even if it has little appetite for competing as a front-runner.
Given that every organization is different, the board should ask management to consider whether the organization is a digital follower, expert, or leader:
Digital follower. The organization has developed a digital strategy and has a proven track record delivering on digital initiatives, which are typically focused on discrete aspects of the customer journey.
Digital expert. The organization has a proven track record of adopting emerging technologies, has achieved high levels of process automation, and quantitatively manages digital aspects of its strategy enterprisewide.
Digital leader. The organization has a proven track record of disrupting traditional business models; digital aspects of strategic plans are continually improved based on lessons learned and predictive indicators.
The approach to innovation is very different for these distinct classes of organizations. Leaders disrupt. Experts aspire to be leaders. Many companies are content to be agile followers, meaning that they frequently reassess and adapt their digital strategy as the market changes. Most businesses are not where they want to be. Many that desire to be followers are in fact beginners. They have multiple digital initiatives underway with objectives that are well-understood, but they lack fully developed digital plans. And many companies that want to be leaders are in fact followers.
Even though they may not know it, some entities are actually skeptics (or observers) because they do not fully buy into the digital revolution and its impact on the business. Usually, these organizations lack formalized digital plans, and their management of digital initiatives is ad hoc. Also, their leadership team may view digital business as mere hype and their business as immune to change.
Neither the skeptic nor the beginner is likely to foster the culture necessary for sustained innovation in the digital age because, at best, they are digital on the edges but not at the core. Therefore, moving beyond these two levels of digital maturity—whether a skeptic or beginner—is desirable.
The challenge for management and the board is to decide the level of digital maturity they desire for the organization. In this context, the digital follower can be a relatively high-performing business. Effective followers play the waiting game, monitor the competitive landscape, and react quickly when necessary to defend market share by enhancing the customer experience. Followers, to succeed, must be agile enough to respond quickly as an early mover, even if they aren’t first movers.
Regarding the assessment of digital maturity, Protiviti’s original research has identified more than 30 empirically supported competencies arrayed across six core disciplines at which digital leaders excel. These competencies consist of capabilities and structural characteristics that can be used to benchmark the organization to identify its strengths and weaknesses.
For example, one of the core disciplines of Protiviti’s digital maturity assessment framework is “organization, structure, and processes.” Within that discipline is the innovation and research competency, which is useful in distinguishing between digital leaders and followers. The point is that competencies can be used to assess an entity’s resilience and likely innovation performance in creating new markets and eventually disrupting existing markets and displacing established incumbents, products, services, and alliances.
These are the real stakes of the innovation game in the digital world. Everything else is small ball.
Companies committed to innovation are confident in facing the future because they know they are playing the right game: viewing innovation as a continuous process rather than a dramatic event. Understanding whether the company desires to be a leader, a follower, or something in between is important, as management’s digital appetite provides directors with the context they need to focus their oversight of the innovation process. If the enterprise is a skeptic or beginner, directors may need to strongly encourage management to assess the organization’s digital readiness and review the results of that assessment with the board. When changes to the corporate culture are needed, the required investments should be made to forge an environment that empowers and rewards employees to test new ideas and take the appropriate risks to make those ideas a reality, without the fear of repercussions or reprisals if they don’t succeed.
There is a buzz in the air about renovating corporate culture in the name of innovation. Directors hear the changing desires of their stakeholders, and are developing a greater understanding of their business’s role for society at large. That buzz guided a recent roundtable discussion in Miami at NACD’s Leading Minds of Governance event.
A panel of governance experts and directors discussed recent trends in corporate governance with a full room of directors (fuller remarks from the panel will follow in the March/April 2018 issue of NACD Directorship magazine). Panelists included:
John Borneman, managing director, Semler Brossy Consulting Group LLC
Stuart R. Levine, nominating and governance committee chair and audit committee member, Broadridge Financial Solutions
Kathleen Misunas, director, Boingo Wireless and Tech Data Corp.; principal, Essential Ideas
Michael Stevenson, partner, BDO USA LLP
Peter P. Tomczak, partner, Baker McKenzie LLP
Highlights from their answers to select questions from directors in the audience follow. Comments have been edited for length.
To Build an Innovative Culture, Start with Hiring
I work in a heavily regulated industry. We’re in a very steady environment, but our industry is changing rapidly in all directions. Helping shift that culture is essential, so I’d love to hear your differing perspectives.
Misunas: I think it starts with the people you hire—and you need the buy-in from your senior staff. The people that are hired help you move in the right direction.
Levine: One of the criteria for hiring should be intellectual curiosity. If you’re hiring people at any level, including on the board, if those people do not express intellectual curiosity, I think you’ve got a problem on your hands. In the boardroom, consider sharing content that stimulates discussions around technology or governance trends. By discussing strategic material, it encourages excellent outcomes.
Misunas: Right. This absolutely should cascade down through the organization. The C-suite alone shouldn’t be concerned with curiosity. The next level should be doing the same thing with their staff, and so on.
Tomczak: When you consider innovation strategy, what does innovation mean to your board? Do you mean bringing in new ideas from outside your industry? If you’re hiring the same 20-year industry veterans, you’re probably going to get the same 20-year-old strategy. I’ve also found that tying individual economic incentives to strategy outcomes is useful, and it’s hard. There’s no right answer to the compensation question and innovation.
Borneman: I’ll add that innovation should be on the CEO’s scorecard. Is it one of the top priorities that you want to hold her accountable to for the organization? You can say it’s important, but if it’s not on the scorecard, you’re merely talking about innovation. There’s no accountability. It doesn’t have to be tied to compensation—to put dollars on it gets tough. But we can find innovation measures in some kind of meaningful, quantifiable way.
Stevenson: I think that when some boards assess themselves, when they probe their expertise, they find that because of the complexity of transactions (for example, in financial instruments and other changes associated with this current business environment), audit committees are finding themselves ill-equipped to handle changes happening in their organizations. As you take a fresh look at your board, understand the other situations that they have been involved with will arm them for change. That’s a critical point to know about members of this committee. Boards that are refreshing [their composition] with this understanding are also the easiest to work with from an audit perspective.
Don’t Miss the ESG Bus
How do we translate ESG into something with real business meaning that management can be held accountable for to deliver results?
Levine: Approaching the governance standpoint, regardless of the business you’re in, we’re all trying to anticipate client and customer needs. If you don’t have people of diverse backgrounds on your board, you risk not understanding the people who are buying your products and services. If you’re looking to deploy capital, and you look around and don’t have representatives on your board of the populations you’re serving, I don’t know how you develop the right strategy.
Misunas: I don’t walk into a business anymore where this is not a topic of conversation. Boards and executives are peeling back the onion to see where their companies stand, and where they should be, on environmental issues. ESG is top of mind for millennials. They speak up about real environmental issues. As a result, companies can look at their distribution lines, for instance. What are our transportation means? What are those contracted companies doing to protect the environment? Could we switch out business partners for a company that is more responsive to these issues?
If there’s no penalty for not doing anything, you’re omitting ESG from culture. I’m not saying you should give an extra reward for doing something, but should there not be some penalty other than getting left off the bus?
Borneman: The penalty is the impact on your business, your employee population, and getting kicked off the bus. It’s not about your bonus. It’s not about compensation. It’s about a longer perspective on business.
When it comes to innovation, boards are notorious for sending conflicting messages. They want to hear assurances of innovation and predictability from management in the same breath. Unfortunately, innovation and predictability don’t go hand-in-hand. Simply put, innovation can’t exist without risk. In fact, the two are easily understood as a marriage—they show up together and work in unison.
Those of us who work in cybersecurity—where staying ahead of adversaries can mean life or death for a company—know that better than most. We have to invest in new ideas, technologies, and processes to adapt to an ever-changing threat landscape. Such investment, like any investment, entails some risk.
We can apply lessons learned about cybersecurity innovation to just about any industry. That’s because every company needs to innovate to remain competitive, which inherently means taking risks. How much risk is enough? How much is too much? And what’s the best way to foster innovation while balancing the need to take risks with the need for predictability?
The best way to answer these questions is to develop clear processes around innovation. It all starts with good communication and diversity of viewpoints.
Talk It Through
Effective communication is key between senior leadership and the engineers and others responsible for innovation. Communication reveals ideas worth taking chances on. There are two structural processes that can work well for this that the board could suggest.
Encourage management and engineers to engage in ad-hoc sharing of observations. This means forming groups to share candid observations about what’s working and what’s not working within an organization.
At Rapid7, we pull in team members across the organization to bring a variety of perspectives to the table. I recommend creating small cross-functional teams and getting them in the habit of observing and sharing ideas to generate more innovation. This continuous dialogue pushes people to think more broadly and differently while sharing learnings that can then be reported to the board when discussing innovation.
Facilitate thought-provoking discussions. Encourage management to create thought experiments designed to spark new ideas and challenge conventional thinking. Those facilitating the conversation might start by asking, “If I gave you an unlimited amount of money to double our efficiency, what would you do?” Or, “If we were going to build a business plan to destroy our business and at the same time gain twice the profits and twice the customer loyalty, what would we do right now?”
These processes can be quite powerful in uncovering places to innovate. But in order for a leadership team and those responsible for innovation to maintain a firm grounding in the reality of the industry while also allowing room for creativity, they need a source of external truth. That means urging management to get outside of the company bubble.
Learn from the Field
To gather new ideas, people across functions should spend unmanaged time outside of the organization, bringing observations back to leadership and to their work. Spending time with customers and partners, engaging with peer groups, observing and engaging with competitors, reading, and attending conferences are all ways to gather the insights that are crucial for effective innovation. The board should challenge management to build a culture of curiosity within the company.
That said, directors should beware of herd mentality taking over the minds of management. Emulating companies that have non-sustainable positions or those in which you have too little insight into the success they are having often doesn’t play out well. Instead, encourage management to pay attention to well-performing companies in their quest for ideas that will improve your company’s position.
At Rapid7, I frame these jobs as learning. I don’t need my teams to come back with concrete action steps or specific outcomes but instead with a learning plan and details on what they saw that has the potential to transform the business over the next year.
Anything a team learns that can potentially create an advantage opens the doors to innovation. Therefore, this culture of learning should not focus only on technology, but instead on the combination of process, technology, market, and customer needs.
Create an Innovation Culture
To flourish, innovation also must be nurtured in the culture of the organization as expressed in the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of its people. Cultures that punish failure, demand certainty, or reward short term results kill innovation before it can even be expressed as an idea. On the other hand, cultures that emphasize learning, encourage experimentation, and focus on rewarding long-term growth behaviors tend be much better at innovation. One of the keys to this is encouraging transparency and reinforcing that it’s okay to discuss possibilities even when the path to delivery is unclear. Lastly, innovation demands an environment built on trust. When people don’t trust each other, they can’t be vulnerable and share their ideas, hopes, and aspirations. Directors should cultivate a culture of open conversation with their management team, and then encourage the same candor between management and employees across the company.
Embrace the Right Level of Risk
Many organizations pursue the minimal amount of innovation because they fear taking too big a leap and risking too much. Others may aggressively pursue transformational innovation that comes with a high degree of risk. What’s the right balance?
To make that assessment, directors and management can consider the three main levels of innovation, in order of increasing risk.
Incremental improvement innovation. You will generally have a high degree confidence about this level of innovation because others in your industry are already doing it and you have real-world observations to back up planning for those innovations.
Outside-in innovation. Somewhat riskier, this level of innovation involves implementing ideas that you are confident could be successful based on outside observation—perhaps from beyond your industry—and adapting them for your organization.
Moon shot innovation. The ultimate risk, with a potentially high-reward payoff. Think SpaceX’s success at launching a sports car to Mars in its quest to ultimately get settlers there.
For a company that’s doing well inside a stable industry, it’s most likely not wise to take a huge risk. Incremental innovation in this case may be enough, always with an oversight-focused eye on what others in the industry are doing.
A company in a more volatile industry, however, may need to get more aggressive in pursuit of game-changing innovations, with ideas borrowed from other industries. A moon shot in this case, appropriately managed and nurtured over time, may be just what’s needed. Directors should ask management to develop plans and evidence for these innovations that are clear, concise, and geared toward oversight of the project’s successful execution and value creation.
Manage the Learning Cycle
Innovation takes time, starting with the learning cycle.
In our experience, the learning cycle takes about a year, and is crucial for properly managing the risk involved in investing further. For implementation, two to four years is a good rule of thumb to start to see a return on investment. Here’s the typical timeline from idea to implementation.
Year 1: Learn a concept.
Year 2: Decide to learn more or kill it.
Year 3: Learn a few more things and try some ideas. Refine the concept.
Year 4: Get traction.
A successful organization prepares for innovation in the same way a runner prepares for a marathon. Innovations and marathons both take time, conditioning and learning the course. That includes understanding the role that risk plays in innovation. Starting with that foundation will put boards and the companies they serve on the right track for success now and into the future.
Corey E. Thomas is CEO of Rapid7. Read more of his insights here.