Seven Metaphors to Help Creative Leaders Innovate

shutterstock_311406716Here are seven metaphors to help you drive innovative behaviour as a creative leader.

1. Lift the veil – why does your organisation want to innovate?

If your top management team plans to launch an innovation initiative, have them answer three questions first:

a. What value will it bring in business terms?

Will it drive more revenue, save costs, differentiate you from the competition, or improve staff retention? How will you quantify this in business terms?

b. What will be the signs of progress?

Recently, I reviewed for a government organisation a list of proposed measures to show innovation progress. Primarily they were input measures, (e.g. the number of people trained, the number of innovation champions appointed). Input measures often show you have built an innovation bureaucracy, not that you are more innovative. Ensure there are output measures too, e.g. the number of propositions implemented and achievement of business value.

c. What will tell you this initiative is sustainable?

You can create a one-off innovative proposition fairly easily. How do you recognise your organisation is sustainably innovative? Clues might be that, you identify opportunities regularly, create propositions frequently, kill poor propositions quickly and explain why you have done this. To do this you need a creative yet structured model for innovating at the front end.

Creative Leader Tip: Ensure your leadership team thinks through these questions before you start an initiative.

2. Focus the lens – what type of innovation does your organisation require?

Recently, a colleague and I visited a potential client to discuss how they might be more innovative. A review of their operational areas revealed it is a very innovative organisation. However, they innovate primarily at the operational level; they excel at finding innovative ways to improve the operation, to make it cheaper, faster, enhance service etc. (Some people call this “incremental” innovation). On probing further, they revealed that business has become tougher because competitors also innovate operationally; operational innovation has diminishing returns in their industry.  They need to innovate more strategically, to create new business or market opportunities, (some people call this “breakthrough” innovation). Wishfully, the client would like to create a “disruptive” innovation, a process, product or service that transforms their industry (think mobile phones, direct insurance and iTunes). However, disruptive innovation can be a challenge for organisations unless they form separate entities; often, entrepreneurs drive disruptive innovation because they have no legacy business or systems to hold them back.

Creative Leader Tip: Ensure you and your colleagues know what type of innovation you seek.

3. Don’t boil the ocean – it takes a lot of energy and resources – how might you make this initiative simpler and quicker?

Major innovation initiatives, like other change programmes, create resistance. They use money and resources that other people want and planning takes a long time. This increases their risk and it is difficult to convince stakeholders to support them when you have no innovative propositions to demonstrate effectiveness. Instead, run a small initiative; form a team, run a workshop to create an innovative proposition, sell that proposition and implement it. When it is successful, repeat it and build an evidence base to obtain resources for larger initiatives.

Creative Leader Tip: Ensure initiatives produce a tangible proposition quickly.

4. Plant seeds in rain forests not deserts – how might you make idea schemes more successful?

A first step for organisations is often to start idea schemes. These can be highly successful if set up right. Too often though they fail to produce innovative propositions because the organisation is not set up to process or implement them, e.g. ideas are poorly thought through, there are too few people to process the ideas, delays occur, managers reject good ideas that don’t fit with their goals, or worse, give them awards but do not implement them. When the seeds of ideas fall in an innovation desert, people become cynical, demotivated and cactus like; they might seek more fertile places to work. Create a rain forest climate; resource schemes properly, set clear criteria for ideas wanted, ensure people that submit ideas know how to evaluate them as well as generate them and have teams, not individuals, review ideas. If you can’t do this, take the approach outlined in point 3 above.

Creative Leader Tip: Spend resources on idea schemes only if the climate is right.

5. Learn the script as you make a film – which is better, train people to innovate, or innovate to learn?

To innovate regularly you need a structured method, a staged approach, somewhat like the film industry needs a screenplay to make films. In a film, it’s more efficient for actors to learn the script as they make the film; not to learn the whole script in advance. Equally, in business, it’s more efficient for people to learn a structured method to innovate as they create a real proposition, not to train in advance. If you use a skilled person to facilitate a workshop on a real opportunity, people learn the method as they create and you receive a fast return on your investment. In one project, we worked with seven companies in just this way. All produced a marketable proposition.

Creative Leader Tip: Have people innovate to learn, don’t learn to innovate.

6. A  dish that is well balanced  contains a variety of ingredients – how might you make it easier to implement the proposition?

Too many propositions falter when teams start to implement them. A key reason is that people may resist a proposition if they have not explored the opportunity, contributed to the solution and shaped the implementation strategy. If leaders involve people from across the organisation in the team, including staff functions, those people are more likely to:

  • Add a different perspective and enrich a proposition
  • Identify pitfalls in the proposition at an earlier and less expensive point
  • Support the proposition and recommend others to support it
  • Provide resources to help develop and implement the proposition
  • Help resolve implementation issues more readily.
Creative Leader Tip: Encourage your colleagues to involve a wide range of departments when exploiting opportunities

7. Guillotine your team – metaphorically of course.

In the UK Parliament, they use a procedural device called a “guillotine” to bring protracted debates to a close. If people talk too much about the mechanics of innovation (e.g. governance and process) and don’t actually innovate, perhaps your organisation should employ it too?

Creative Leader Tip: Encourage people to innovate rather than talk about innovation.

What are your favourite metaphors around innovating? Consider some this week.

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John Brooker is a former SVP and innovator at Visa and is now the MD of Yes! And. Think Innovatively network. He developed his Inn8® Approach to help teams maximise opportunities innovatively. You can hear clients discuss these approaches at John is an Open University MBA and tutored the Creativity, Innovation and Change course for 14 years. He is author of Innovate to Learn, Don’t Learn to Innovate. Contact: +44 20 8869 9990 or

John Brooker




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