Nilofer Merchant

Nilofer Merchant: If Innovation Is More Than Good Ideas, What Matters?

Innovation keeps companies alive. But sometimes our human barriers can get the best of us and block our creativity.

Who would be a better choice to speak about innovation than Nilofer Merchant, the Jane Bond of Innovation herself? With over 20 years of experience at Fortune 500 firms, globally and from her startup experiences in Silicon Valley, Nilofer has an extensive expertise in innovation. During the first day of Bootcamp for Business Growth, Nilofer unravelled the barriers that hinder innovation and shared her expertise in leading innovation. Here are the key points from the day.

1. Look for the mission match

“Performance of innovation today is driven by community.” And what your community needs in order to innovate is a common mission.

According to Nilofer this roots back to the recruitment of people. Think of recruiting process as an invitation to people to join your mission. If they share your passion and buy into your mission, you will get their commitment in return. Often times people focus on the culture fit, but as Nilofer pointed out, culture is more about the values, while mission is about whether the person believes in the thing you’re doing. That’s why you should value mission match over culture match.

2. Questions are key

The key to innovation is to have the ability to ask questions. When faced with a challenge, we easily tend to go into a problem solving mode. Instead we should focus on questions that would lead us to the core of the actual challenge. So before making any abrupt judgements or trying to solve the problem right away, you should focus on answering a few questions first.

3. Human Barriers Cost Us Ideas

The biggest reason why people don’t innovate is fear. Fear of not knowing the answers, fear of disagreement, fear of wasting time without any action, or fear of having more work. Innovation is all about getting out of your comfort zone, so better stop being afraid.

4. Stop hiring for a box

Organizations often put people in boxes and expect them to stay there. But that doesn’t build creative and innovative environment. Instead of forcing people in boxes we should give people the power to share their ideas and encourage them to question current processes. So drive innovation by letting every single person have an equal footing. Let them think! And remember to listen. As Nilofer pointed out, “listening is the number one thing you can do as a leader in innovation.”

5. Treat ideas as parents treat their children

“It’s not about you having an idea, but how to execute the idea.” – Nilofer Merchant.

There’s a great babysitter-parent analogy that explains well how we should approach our ideas. While the babysitter’s job is to try to keep the baby alive, the parent’s job is to grow the baby. If our ideas are all talk, but no action, there will be no changes, no results.

6. Innovation comes from dissatisfaction

People would love to think that innovation comes from blooming creativity and inspiration, but what usually feeds innovation is dissatisfaction. So a great way to recognize an opportunity for innovation is to think about the things you are unhappy with.

7. Time and money are only excuses

You cannot use the excuse of time and money not to innovate. You need to set your priorities straight. Think what it is you really care about. And remember, if you need to make your CFO understand innovations, just ask them: three years from now, do you want to be alive?


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