Disruptive changes are transforming entire sectors of the economy. Industries are being upended. Only those who are able to reinvent themselves, imagining new solutions, and developing new products and services to be relevant in the future will be poised to thrive.
That’s what Brand Positive co-founder Sean Pillot de Chencey teaches in his book Influencers & Revolutionaries: How Innovative Trailblazers, Trends and Catalysts Are Transforming Businesses.
Sean emphasizes that a relentless focus on the customer is essential. He outlines what businesses should do and also makes recommendations for leading in this era of change. I recently had the opportunity to ask him about his work and his book.
What’s your definition of innovation?
The definition I like to use is the that the person or team responsible ‘seeks problems to solve’ and where Insight + Ideas + Impact = Innovation.
“Rebels and mavericks have to feel respected, in a welcoming, collaborative and supporting environment.” -Sean Pillot de Chencey
What characteristics do the most innovative organizations share?
I believe that one of the most vital things to do is to be crystal clear in recognizing that invention (the creation of a process or device) is markedly different from innovation, which is a process of transforming via iteration, styling or alteration. That’s a crucial distinction and an important one to make clear at the outset of a project, or the laying down of a strategy or indeed job description, as most people tend to say ‘innovate’ when we actually mean ‘invent.’ Good marketers, and particularly researchers, tackle business problems by directly challenging the core beliefs around the ‘consumer reality’ of a brand—which are very often based on either outmoded, unrealistic or simply wishful thinking. The number of senior company personnel who see things as they’d like them to be, rather than as they really are, is quite extraordinary. Instead, they should pose the question ‘how can we know this for certain?’ on a regular basis. As in ‘You may believe this, but does the consumer?’
Why do many businesses seem frozen even though the constant changes hitting industries require action?
Who better to quote in this instance than the late, great, Clayton Christensen who famously answered this question in his book The Innovator’s Dilemma. In it, he focused on the in-built problem that faces a successful company which is doing the ‘right thing’ by obsessing over their loyal customers to the exclusion of others. The in-built problem, or Catch-22 situation if you prefer, is essentially one where companies simultaneously try to both look after their core customers while also trying to be innovative, and yet not be so innovative as to disrupt their own business.
“The modern office needs that element of humanity and gentleness that you or I feel in our home.” -Sean Pillot de Chencey
How do leaders best build a culture of innovation?
The key route to doing so is to seek inspiration from both inside and outside the organization, combine relevant ideas and concepts, and then work your way forward to solving the problem. Regarding management’s role, Peter Drucker focused on the discussion around how much of innovation is inspiration versus how much is genuinely hard work, from the angle of appropriate management. As he stated, “if it’s mainly the former, then management’s role is limited: hire the right people and get out of their way. If it’s largely the latter, management plays a more vigorous role: establishing roles and processes, setting goals and measures, and reviewing progress at every step.” But above everything else, he pointed out that that innovation “is work rather than genius.”
“The key route to [building a culture of innovation] is inspiration from both inside and outside the organization, combine relevant ideas and concepts, and then work your way forward to solving the problem.” -Sean Pillot de Chencey
How will the COVID-19 pandemic impact innovation and leadership in organizations around the world?
It’s still very early to draw any sort of conclusions about a ‘Post-Covid’ world, but current indications appear to suggest that, as I say in my book which was published just as the virus began to hit Europe, the move to broader/faster adoption of next generation technology will take place, but that this will be joined by the need for innovative solutions to nearer/more national supply chains (due to the disruptive impact of Covid on global and ‘just in time’ deliveries) and, as I identified in my first book ‘The Post-Truth Business,’ the ever stronger dominance of the ‘Big Nine’ data giants (the ‘G-Mafia’ of Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, IBM and Apple, plus the BAT: Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent).
You talk about the future of work. Would you briefly touch on your thinking?
I’m interested in how a range of trends are impacting the future of work from a range of perspectives including future workforce desires, the catalytic impact of technology, the enablement of autonomy and the broadening remit of creativity. Hence, I illuminate why the future workplace will become a more emotional, diverse, inclusive and responsive ‘exchange space’ and why issues ranging from sustainability to wellness, flexibility and virtuality are becoming ever more key considerations. In doing so, I look into specific areas such as ‘conscious coworking’, multi-generational teams, life-long learning, the search for meaning and value creation; and how we’re witnessing a move from ‘talent owning’ to ‘talent attraction’ in the era of the gig economy and proworking environments. But to summarize, when it comes to discussions around people’s desires toward the type of work that they want, the most consistent thing I’ve heard is the need to feel connected and to have a sense of community. The understanding that a collaborative approach is the best way forward, being part of an environment that promotes diversity and seeking work with a genuine sense of meaning, are issues that you’ll hear from Tokyo to Melbourne to Helsinki. As for the specific impact of Covid-19 on workforce behavior and workplace locations, I think it’s safe to state that these are set to be profound…
What would you say to a new leader who aspires to be an innovator but doesn’t know where to start?
For my ‘topline interpretation’ of all of the great thinking that I’ve identified, here’s what I’d suggest from the perspective of five key routes to innovation:
- ‘Question and Confront.’ Be skeptical, and challenge established thinking. So…think like Rene Descartes.
- ‘Look and Listen.’ Be aware of cultural signals and market dynamics. So…think like William Gibson.
- ‘Collaborate and Utilize.’ Leverage a range of team abilities and organizational assets. So…think like Mariana Mazzucato.
- ‘Research & Develop.’ Conduct consumer research re: needs, desires and tension points, then test innovative concepts. So…think like Peter Drucker.
- ‘Be a good corporate citizen.’ Take note of, and try to help fix, social and environmental problems. So…think like Tom Siebel.
Would you share an example or two of people who have lived your principles and demonstrated them in terms of being an influencer and revolutionary?
Only a few years ago, when asked to identify an extraordinary figure who was an ‘Influencer & Revolutionary’ many people would have thought of an individual like Elon Musk, who created a radical new range of consumer products, and in doing so, made better things. But in today’s world, I’d like to highlight someone who, quite simply, is the most important ‘Influencer & Revolutionary’ of our era. Crucially, instead of ‘just’ being interested in making better things, she takes a more profound approach, and wants to make things better for humanity. I’m talking, of course, about Greta Thunberg.
For more information, see Influencers & Revolutionaries: How Innovative Trailblazers, Trends and Catalysts Are Transforming Businesses.
Photo Credit: Riccardo Annandale