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Thinking Outside the Box: Strategic Innovation

How executive education courses can help leaders see through the inherent risk in innovative thinking
Dec 5, 2011 — M. Filtz

When many people think of innovation, they think about creating new products or systems that weren’t there before, or “something out of nothing.” 

Strategic innovation is similar. It considers new ways of doing things, but in the context of a wider system, like a business. By implementing strategic innovation, executives can put their business’ future in a wider perspective, reflecting on new opportunities and how to encourage new solutions to take advantage of those opportunities. They can begin thinking about issues like how to modify supply chains to take advantage of new efficiencies, or how to modify an existing product in order to tap into a new market.
 
However, strategic innovation is often risky. Take Canon’s move in the 1970s to begin marketing photocopiers to home offices and small businesses. This shift away from solely corporate clients posed technological challenges (could Canon produce photocopiers at a much lower cost?) and huge overall risk (would people really want loud, complicated machines in their home offices?). Despite the risk, Canon pushed ahead, and became hugely successful in this market space.
 
Can innovation be taught?
 
The tricky part about any innovation is that it often requires thinking “outside the box,” that is, considering a new product or service external to the normal business context. Because strategic innovation necessarily implies challenges – risk, uncertainties across multiple levels, and poorly understood markets or systems – it requires thinking that might be nonlinear and counterintuitive. 
 
This kind of thinking is, by definition, hard to accomplish amidst the generally linear thinking involved in everyday, linear, business operations. Canon’s shift, for example, was in many ways a departure away from a very profitable business strategy, based mainly on assumptions about future markets.
 
Fortunately, this kind of thinking can be encouraged through a variety of executive education courses. Many courses put strategic innovation into perspective by helping executives understand current methods of encouraging innovative thinking, so that they can begin to develop plans to encourage innovation by leveraging resources and manpower. Executive training can also provide systems by which to think more holistically about a business, its resources, and its opportunities.
 
Perhaps most importantly, these courses can deliver an environment and structure away from the workplace where managers can think about strategic innovation without normal day-to-day considerations. After all, as many managers know, “thinking outside of the box” is difficult when most of your concerns are within that box.
 
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