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Innovation: beyond the ‘genius inventor’

Once we move on from an antiquated view of a lone inventor or business leader, we can embrace a more realistic and successful perspective to cultivate innovation.

Antar Salim

Innovation is at the heart of business success. It is an essential element of growth. Yet many businesses are still uncertain how to find it, create it or obtain it, as if innovation were tied up in a charismatic leader or some magic elixir to acquire. On April 24, the Hendrickson Forum at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota will host a luncheon with renowned author and business innovation consultant Jackie Freiberg. Her talk and the discussion following it will explore how organizations can foster and create cultures that embrace innovation well beyond creating a new product or a new way of doing business.

What does it mean to lead from an innovation culture? First, consider the many views of innovation you may already have. As is often the case, your views may depend on when you grew up and your collective experiences.

Unsung contributors

Innovation today is far removed from the single invention by an individual that includes an almost hero-like admiration. Decades or more after these so-called solo inventions took place, we are now learning about the many individuals who contributed time, insight and skills to a particular success. For example, in “The Age of Edison,” author Ernest Freeberg makes the case that Edison’s light bulb was really the work of many inventors. The story of these unsung contributors (the film “Hidden Figures” comes to mind) is getting more commonplace as we look more closely at innovations of the past century, from space travel to technology advances and medical breakthroughs. It’s not just a matter of history, either. Who doesn’t associate Elon Musk with the now famous Tesla and his quest for commercial space travel?

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Yet while our culture is drawn to a few brilliant and charismatic individuals, true leadership is the collective fulfillment of a team’s vision, not the realization of one individual’s dream. Once we move on from an antiquated view of a lone inventor or business leader, we can embrace a more realistic and successful perspectiv to cultivate innovation.

A more contemporary axiom of innovation leadership combines the virtues of the three Cs: Collaboration, Cooperation and Compassion. As organizations have become more diverse and complex, the need to collaborate with others is paramount. Information is no longer the currency of success. Firms must harness the collective sagacity of many diverse perspectives to innovate and meet the ever-changing needs of diverse customers and stakeholders. When leaders channel the organization’s collective human resources with compassion to solve real market needs, they will also contribute to innovations for future financial prosperity.

Beyond a single produce or firm

Innovation also goes beyond a single product or firm. One way to think about innovation is as a continuum and not a destination. On one extreme, innovation is the ability to offer a modification to an existing product or service, such as when cell phones added the capacity to take photos. Or organizations may offer the same product or service to reach new markets through a changed distribution model. An example of this is the advent of online course offerings in higher education to reach students who traditionally may not have had access to a college degree. Finally, on the other end of the spectrum, we arrive at disruptive innovation. This is when a firm offers a totally new product or service to a totally new market. The advent of the television or the Internet are examples of breakthrough innovations that truly changed a way of life for people on a global basis.

Truly life-altering innovations are rare; most consumers may experience a handful of these in a lifetime. When we view innovation from a more panoptic perspective, we recognize that leaders establish the culture that leverages the voices and talents of the many in order to craft creative product and services. Locally, 3M and Medtronic are two excellent examples. There are many levels of innovation; we do not all need to “put a ding in the universe,” to paraphrase the late Apple founder Steve Jobs, in order to innovate. What we need is leadership that embraces and supports the importance of collaboration, cooperation and compassion.

The Hendrickson Forum luncheon at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis campus is open to the public. Tickets are online.

Antar Salim, M.B.A., D.B.A., is a core associate professor in the Doctor of Business Administration program at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota.


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