Innovation, it seems, is a rather slippery term to nail down. Few business leaders would admit to being poor innovators, and yet ask them to define exactly what it means (and as headhunters that’s exactly what we do!) and you will get a wide variety of responses.

The problem is that you find yourself chasing a moving target.

Ten years ago innovating wasn’t much different to experimenting and often sat on the fringes of an IT department; perhaps as an hour-a-week project of enthusiasts. We certainly didn’t see much formal need for innovation in the job requirements we gathered from clients when recruiting business leaders.

However, innovation has come to mean a whole lot more to companies, and it is now a cross-functional demand and collaborative effort. The 2013 Harvey Nash Australian Digital Pulse Survey shows that nearly 60 per cent of organisations have a champion or steering committee driving the transformation from business-as-usual to becoming an innovative and socially-focussed business.

Australia still has a huge innovation gap.

According to the 2013 Harvey Nash CIO Survey, 78 per cent of technology leaders see ‘great’ innovation potential in their organisation but only one per cent feel that this potential has actually been achieved. Mobile and the cloud have all presented genuinely new ways to do business both internally and with external customers, not to mention opening out new markets and revenue streams. 74 per cent of technology leaders will be increasing their investment in mobility and 61 per cent will invest more in the cloud.

Since 2011, our research has consistently demonstrated that business leaders believe their company will lose market share if they fail to innovate. There has never been a time when innovation has been more important.

This has fundamentally changed the DNA of the people that we now look for across an organisation. It has also spawned a demand for hybrid individuals, those who with the creativity, analytical mind and commercial nous to be innovative digital leaders.

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(Image Source: CDS Global)

A job specification for a business leader ten years ago would have focused strongly on project management, technical and commercial understanding and the ability to relate to internal customers.

Today important new traits are being added that reflect the more interconnected, multifarious, externally focused and fast-changing world we live in.

After interviewing hundreds of business leaders — some innovative, others less so — I can list the eight characteristics that make a digital innovator stand out.

  1. Treasure-hunter : Innovative leaders are able to find innovation possibilities in both the likely places (social media, cloud or mobile) but also in the some rather more unexpected, dark places, which are of real interest. Innovators are one of the few people in an organisation who have their fingers in just about every pie and, by connecting things together, can identify really new possibilities.
  2. Open-minded : As technologies and business models continue to evolve, it is becoming increasingly difficult to come up with long or even medium term strategies. Successful digital leaders embrace this uncertain world and can live with fuzzy strategies and changing priorities. They are open-minded, agile and are able to switch gears quickly. They are prepared to pursue multiple streams of projects, killing off the unsuccessful, and evolving the most promising. Even the primary business objective of a project is not sacrosanct to a digital innovator. This may also change during the project. It may not even exist formally at the start of a project. In lieu of this lack of certainty, digital innovators are guided by a feel for what is right. True innovators always respect their instinct.
  3. Old-school : Innovation is no longer synonymous with star gazing. More than ever, it is rooted in sound commercial principals and a focus return on investment. Whilst our clients do look for people who are can create a vision, they are also looking for pragmatic people who are able to translate creative concepts into commercial value. They understand how to make a business case.
  4. Form-function : In a world increasingly being defined by products that have a strong design ethos from companies like Apple and Google, digital innovators know that even the very best functioning product is likely to have limited success if its user interface is not up to scratch. Product design is central and often the start point to the project, rather than a stage further down the project life cycle. Interestingly look-and-feel seems to be in a digital innovator’s DNA, even down to the way they dress. Digital innovators do not dress like techies, they dress like the rest of the business.
  5. Thrill-seeker : True innovators are not afraid to take calculated risks. Rather like a venture capitalist they see their projects as a portfolio that they nurture. They accept and embrace the idea that many of these projects will not result in a big return. They see failure as a learning experience and are clever enough to have enough successes to stay in the game.
  6. Geek-chic : At the end of the day digital is really it is about technology and digital innovators have a surprisingly firm grasp of the technical detail. They understand that whilst new technology can create new opportunities, it can also create new competitors and threats. Innovators are passionate about understanding the technical landscape that they operate in, not just because they are genuinely interested, but because they know their innovation will lack longevity without it.
  7. The Shepherd : Digital innovators tend to foster innovation, rather than own or manage it. For instance, they will empower other people to work out how to use social networks, and then work back from the successes achieved to formulate a company-wide policy or ground rules. They are capable of guiding from the distance, without stamping out passion and innovation elsewhere. The attitude of encouraging other people to take the glory makes them attractive people to work for.
  8. Oracle : For many CEOs, investing in a digital innovation is a leap of faith, which is why it is so important that the person leading the innovation has the trust of the CEO and board. This person must also ensure that the CEO and board understand innovation and how in many ways it is different from traditional technology projects.

Ying and Yang

To find an individual with all of these skills is difficult enough, but to then add to that the traditional business leader skills and you have an almost impossible task.

The trouble is that some of these new innovation skills don’t naturally sit alongside the more traditional ones. It takes a very rare person, who in one breath can control a company’s policy and yet actively encourage an ecosystem of social networks they have little influence over.

Some argue that trying to squeeze too much into one role risks blowing it up and that the job of a business leader simply can’t contain both an innovation and traditional remit.

For now, whilst companies are still exploring with innovation, most can live with this Ying and Yang situation. But there are strong indicators that the future might be quite different.

Start the conversation about digital innovators on Linkedin today.

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