When you think of innovation, what are the first things that come to your mind? For me, I think of amazing product innovations or technological advances. If I give it more thought, maybe I’d think of scientific or medical advancements. What a lot of us tend to overlook is process innovation, something far more important.
Innovating on the process, while often ignored, is what truly innovative leaders focus on first. That secret is why so many people fall short of achieving that status. If you want to stand out as a leader, make sure you start making this a major area of focus.
What is “The Process”?
When I say process, I mean the way things are done and the culture they’re done in. Process is the way people work and the way they think about working. Humans, for the most part, are naturally complacent. Over time, the processes we use can become stagnant, while everything else around us changes. Technology, economics, social values, and company objections all change, but for many organizations, the process remains relatively untouched.
Steve Jobs, when he made his triumphant return to Apple, did something extraordinary. No, it wasn’t inventing the iMac, but instead, it was forcing the entire board of directors out of the company. The first thing he did was attack the process, because in his mind, the culture of Apple was broken. If he was going to innovate on the products at Apple, he needed a process that would allow for it. He needed unhindered creativity, ambition, and innovation. He needed speed, agility, and a willingness to break out of the box.
One of my professors, who was a successful and now retired CEO, once said,
Make sure to change the people once you’ve made a change. My biggest mistake was not doing this soon enough.
I’ve really taken his words to heart, and it’s truly the soul of this post. You can spend your entire life trying to make the next big thing, but if the people and systems around you aren’t on your side, you’ll never achieve the level of success you’re aspiring to.
Is Your Company’s Process an Inhibitor?
Think about the company you work for right now. Is it a mature company or a startup? If it’s a startup, you’ll probably have a lot of flexibility in defining the process. For a mature company, however, most likely the culture favors stability over innovation.
It wasn’t always like this, but over the past few decades, pleasing shareholders became the main focus of companies. They reasonably demand measured growth and tend to have a lower tolerance for uncertainty. In my opinion, this is why process became so stagnant in the 90s and 00s. As a result, leaders like Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos were able to disrupt the status quo so effectively.
Going back to you. While you probably don’t have the power to change things across your entire organization, you can take steps to transform your team right now. If you feel inhibited at times by your process, start by identifying areas for improvement and working with your peers to start changing them. If you’re effective, over time you’ll infect other teams, helping them adopt the best practices you’ve set in place.
An Innovative Process Doesn’t Mean Chaos
I feel like this next point needs to be stated because for people opposed to process innovation, chaos is what they fear. Likewise, many times people who want to make change end up doing it in such a chaotic way that others just wish they’d stop. You don’t want to be on either side, and innovating on process doesn’t mean having uncontrolled chaos.
If you’re making sweeping changes, it’s your job to provide leadership, and build trust, for the people around you. Simply mandating, or provoking, a change and then telling everyone else to figure it out isn’t what being an innovative leader is all about. Innovative leaders are willing to put their time, energy, and reputation on the line to fix and improve problems.
Your job is to find ways to change the process, while not alienating people or stalling progress. It’s true, sometimes you need to pause in order to continue forward, but be careful to know how much leeway you have. Change always faces resistance, so just make sure your approach isn’t causing more, unnecessarily.
Process Innovation in The Real World
One of the best ways to see how process innovation can define a company, is to look at some real examples. There a ton out there, from Apple to Toyota, but I thought I’d bring two that I think are worth your time. One of them is IDEO, a company that created a process to allow for disciplined, yet unhindered, creativity. The other is Amazon, a company that we’re all familiar with but used process innovation to take over the e-commerce world.
Case 1. IDEO’s Creativity-First Process Innovation
IDEO’s secret formula is unhindered creativity combined with refined delivery objectives. They’ve created a multi-step process that allows for every type of personality to contribute. At the start of the process, the creative minds get a chance to invent with zero resistance. They then refine those ideas down and realign the creativity with more guidance to work off. Finally, decision makers make decisive calls, determining which prototypes will make it to the finish line.
The reason I use IDEO as an example, is because I want to challenge you to think about whether your process allows people with all types of distinct personalities to fully engage. If it doesn’t, you most likely have underutilized potential, and even worse, an issue with gender, ethnicity, race, or religious diversity. The reason being, only a certain mold of person can flourish at your company, limiting the growth and influence of all others.
Secondly, I want you to think about if your process for discovery and innovation is centered around having the correct answer (as opposed to having the correct process). IDEO doesn’t focus on the end result, because they know that their process will produce the best possible solution. This level of trust allows for quick failures and fast learning—giving them a strong competitive advantage. It also allows them to be highly selective about what initiatives they take on. Their goal is to provide value for their customers, and if they can’t do that, they decline the work.
Case 2. Amazon’s Rethink of e-Commerce Process
Amazon grew, much like it’s namesake, to take over the e-commerce world. As of writing this, for every $1 spent online, sales via Amazon account for 45% of that. That number is hard to believe, but it’s projected that they’ll reach 50% of all online sales revenue in the next year.
Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, has been innovating on process since the start. Specifically optimizing his supply chain operation in ways the competition never thought to do. The end result is Amazon’s ability to deliver goods within the same day of ordering. They’ve also built the technological infrastructure to handle millions of transactions per day from around the world.
Let me put the focus back on you and where you work. Is your technology stack stagnant? How about your product delivery process? There may be areas in your development cycle that have become too waterfall instead of agile, causing slow delivery and innovation. Remember, if you’re not adapting your process over time, it will become a roadblock, even if it wasn’t a year ago.
Amazon continuously innovates on their process, and that’s why I encourage you to think about it more. Not long ago, they decided to purchase a robotics company to better streamline their distribution and shipping centers. They were already doing an amazing job, but this single change has kept them miles ahead of the competition.
Yes, you’re not Amazon. You most likely don’t own the company you work for, but that doesn’t mean you can’t move the needle. Focus on the growth opportunities in your company if you were to optimize parts of the process. By doing so, not only will you bring surprising results, but you’ll also boost your career potential to new heights.
Innovative Leaders Change The Process
It’s tempting to focus on the next big hit, but as a disciplined leader, you have to prioritize and be patient. You want long-term success, coupled with the ability to continuously innovate with little resistance. If you feel stuck, or that things move too slowly, start focusing on ways to make work more streamlined. Find out how to cut out unnecessary noise, and optimize for failing fast, learning quickly, and delivering on time.
There are so few people who focus on process innovation that I’m sure you’ll be quickly recognized if you start. The best way you can gain respect and influence at work is by bringing to light opportunities for improvement that no one else has thought of. That’s what innovative leadership is all about, and something you’re fully capable of achieving, if you push yourself.
If you haven’t read my post about becoming a visionary leader, I’d recommend you bookmark it for later. It’s directly related to implementing what we’ve just gone over and will help as you transform into a more effective leader. For now, keep thinking about the processes at your job and set a goal to make a least one thing better right away.
Credit: Feature image by Freepik