Recent times are bordering on apocalyptic and the companies are worrying about becoming zombies — the shuffling undead without a future. This is what happens when companies run out of ideas. Helpfully, innovation coach Elvin Turner has brought out a book that aims to teach big corporations how to avoid this fate in 50 short chapters.

Turner’s main thesis is that senior managers are too caught up the day-to-day of the business. There is no incentive for eyes-on-the-horizon creative thinking. Few at the pinnacle of their corporate career want to take risks.

How do you change this? Sifted asked Turner to share a few tips.

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What inspired you to write the book?

I wrote Be Less Zombie to help answer the number one question that leaders ask me regardless of their industry sector: “Don’t tell me why, don’t tell me what, just tell me how we get innovation moving in this place.”

Innovation still feels like a ‘black art’ for most companies

Innovation still feels like a ‘black art’ for most companies and so I wrote Be Less Zombie to be a practical, warts-and-all guide for leaders and managers who want to embed innovation inside their organisations.

I also wrote it to address another problem that I encounter regularly: a typical executive’s chronic lack of time. Even if a manager did want to increase her innovation capabilities, she had no time to read the books that I recommended, and those that she did read were hard to put into practice.

So I wrote Be Less Zombie with a definite user experience and outcome in mind: quick and easy to read (50 short chapters), low on jargon and high on immediate applicability.

Elvin Turner, author of Be Less Zombie

What is the main problem with corporate innovation at the moment? Why does it have such a poor reputation and track record?

My experience is that the vast majority of innovation is actually fantastically successful. And that’s because most corporate innovation is pretty easy. Its focus is on short-term, marginal gains in contexts where cause-and-effect is very well understood. Innovation is largely incremental and often focused on putting out fires or responding at short notice to the demands of the biggest customers.

“Where are all the big ideas?” is a common complaint that I hear.

Most executives that I meet don’t want more innovation per se. They want a different profile of innovation. “Where are all the big ideas?” is a common complaint that I hear. Executives are often well aware of the strong business case for pursuing more disruptive ideas. The challenge is that few companies are deliberate about creating environments where bolder ideas can successfully show up on a regular basis.

So what’s the answer?

The question in the back of every employee’s mind who is brewing a bold idea is: “Is it worth it?”

In most settings it isn’t. The prospect of suggesting and then developing an idea that challenges the status quo is too painful, and the day job is already bulging at the seams.

“Prevailing decision-making systems are too binary to deal with ideas that we are still trying to understand.”

I like what Astro Teller of Google X says about creating a path of least resistance for bold ideas. That often comes down to designing smart processes, pathways and cultural contexts where ideas can survive long enough for us to understand whether they merit further investment and scale. Too often these ideas are effectively ‘dead on arrival’ because the prevailing decision-making systems are too binary to deal with ideas that we are still trying to understand.

In the book, I propose a lightweight, strategic framework to help leaders create an environment that is more conducive to bolder idea discovery. It covers the basics of an innovation strategy and then aligns core dependencies around processes, resources, capabilities, culture and leadership.

How should corporate innovation professionals be responding to the current crisis?

The current crisis should accelerate a more holistic organisational focus for innovation. Product innovation tends to dominate the corporate agenda in many organisations and the focus on innovating how we operate is short-changed, or at best remains incremental. Business and operating model innovations are becoming as important as product innovation in many contexts so unifying innovation’s focus and investing in capabilities in those areas will be essential.

“Typical leadership teams are far too involved in the day-to-day business.”

A less intuitive but more fundamental response to the Covid-19 crisis should be to use it as stimulus to innovate the most powerful lever of influence over innovation performance: the leadership team.

Typical leadership teams are far too involved in the day-to-day business, which shortens the focus of their gaze, motivates more tactical, certainty-driven metrics, and ironically reduces the likelihood of the things showing up that they are asking for more of: bold ideas that challenge the status quo.

What should leaders do first?

When leaders deliberately build capabilities beneath them so that they can step back from 90% of operational decision-making, an important chain reaction can begin for innovation: increased capacity for a more deliberate focus on strategic thinking, future exploration and their own learning and development. In turn, a more balanced portfolio of innovation is likely to show up because the senior team’s focus is on pulling more of tomorrow into today.

“The future’s a luxury around here,” a senior manager once said to me. That’s a tell-tale sign that a company is on its way to becoming a zombie.

What stops that shift from occurring is often leadership comfort zones. What we measure gets done, but what we value gets measured. Few people at the pinnacle of their careers volunteer to take more risks. The connection between leaders’ desire to be vulnerable has a strong connection to the organisation’s future commercial vulnerability.

Metrics can help here. When leaders hold themselves accountable for delivering outcomes that demand bolder innovation, the whole system is incentivised to recalibrate accordingly, and overall innovation performance can lift.

“The future’s a luxury around here,” a senior manager once said to me. That’s a tell-tale sign that a company is on its way to becoming a zombie.

Apart from Be Less Zombie, what other books have been helpful to you in thinking about innovation?

The Lean Start-Up (Eric Ries)

Badass: Making Users Awesome (Kathy Sierra)

Business Model Generation (Alex Osterwalder)

Diffusions of Innovations (Everett M Rogers)

Daring Greatly (Brene Brown)

Who Do You Want Your Customers To Become? (Michael Schrage)

When Coffee and Kale Compete (Alan Klement)

The End of Competitive Advantage (Rita McGrath)

Flash Foresight (Daniel Burrus)

The Bible

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