Leaders want breakthrough ideas and innovation.

Or at least that is what they say they want.

According to a recent BCG report of executives worldwide, 76% said innovation was among their top three strategic priorities.

For CEOs it was a staggering 84%.

But how can you improve your breakthrough innovation success rate?

Based on my research and experience working with leaders, here are some suggestions:

1. Focus

I love the story in Steve Jobs’ biography (written by Walter Isaacson) of how in the Apple annual planning conference he would ask the leaders for their top 10 priorities.

After much wrangling the various leaders agreed upon the list – only for Jobs to dramatically cross out the bottom seven items and declare the company would only concentrate on the top three for the next year.

This is the opposite of most strategic planning sessions that I attend.

These usually end with a shopping list of things to do.

But if you want a breakthrough, it’s much better to do a few things really well and let go of the idea of trying to do lots of things, but none of them very well.

2. Be courageous enough to challenge your existing assumptions and beliefs

One of the hardest things for any leadership group is to challenge what has worked in the past – particularly if has been successful.

It is much easier if sales are in decline or targets are missed because what have you got to lose?

It takes courage to abandon a successful product, service or business model and explore a new growth possibility.

In these times of rapid change success in the past is no guarantee of success in the future.

Take your eye off the ball and you will get passed.

Or, as Nike CEO Mark Parker notes: “One of my fears is being this big, slow, constipated, bureaucratic company that’s happy with its success. Companies fall apart when their model is so successful that it stifles thinking that challenges it.”

One of the best ways to do this is to try and make your beliefs, assumptions, expectations and experiences explicit.

By making these explicit you can then develop breakthrough strategies or products that shatter or overturn them.

 3. Identify, value and harness your mavericks

My observation of much of organisational life today is the emphasis on collaboration and co-operation.

Everything is team based. Being a team player is considered an absolute necessity for career success – but what of the maverick?

What to do with the people who see the world differently from everyone else?

To be sure, mavericks can be difficult to manage and they can be disruptive.

But that is the point. They are constantly asking ‘why?’

It is a much better idea to try and identify these mavericks, put them together and give them a real project to work on. Harness their differences rather than be threatened by it.

4.  Have another look at the “never-evers”

Another tool I use with leadership groups is to ask them to look with fresh eyes at the “never-evers” – the people who never ever buy your product. For example, who would have thought 10 years ago that teenagers, and in some cases kids, would be the single biggest target group for mobile phones?

Opening up your thinking to the “never-evers” means that your market opportunity could be so much larger than you ever imagined.

Breakthrough innovation is difficult, risky and disruptive to your existing business.

But to increase your chances of success you have to approach it in a non-business-as-usual way.

Some of these ideas will help you escape the way it has always been done and hopefully help you create a better future.

 * First appeared in Leading Company

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