How to Cultivate Innovation for the Long Run

Here’s a generalization we feel pretty safe making: Every successful company achieves its success by figuring out how to deliver a particular product or a service better than anyone else previously has.

Here’s another one: Unless that company can keep figuring out how to do that, its success is going to be short-lived. It’s only as strong as its ability to stay ahead of the next new thing.

Long-term success is all about the capacity to innovate — no arguments there. But here’s the paradox at the heart of trying to innovate: If innovation is all about busting norms and breaking the mold, how you do make it routine? If innovation is all about doing something that’s never been done before, how do you make absolutely sure you can do it again and again? How do you capture something so inherently elusive?

Companies can’t force innovation, but they can do the next closest thing: establish an environment that’s conducive to it. “What matters,” writes Research Director Paul Schoemaker regarding innovation, “is how well strategic leaders combine talent and culture to find imaginative solutions to unmet needs.” By creating the right mix of these intangible factors, firms can cultivate the fertile ground that makes innovation most likely to grow.

Not surprisingly, says Schoemaker, even innovation itself has to be continuously reinvented. It requires a willingness to look for ideas in previously unexplored places, to experiment with untested forms of organization, to set “audacious goals,” and to chase failure to see where it will lead.

Questions about the how of innovation are central to Mack Institute research, and they’re at the heart of our next conference in San Francisco on June 11th. The event, entitled “Leadership, Talent and Culture,” will examine how strategic leaders attract top players, empower their teams, and establish a culture of continuous innovation. As always, our conference will take a cross-disciplinary approach, combining research-based perspectives with experts from fields as diverse as software, product design, data analytics, and medicine. By bringing together a broad array of perspectives, we’ll work together to tease apart common strategies that help innovation thrive, no matter the industry.