Written by Tobias Straube, Advisor at Germany’s leading provider of international cooperation service GIZ GmbH and Executive MBA student at Hult International Business School

During World War II, the US military established an air-bridge across the Pacific Ocean to supply their overseas troops with reinforcements. To manage the long distance, the US Air Force set up an airport for cargo planes on a small Melanesian island in the middle of the ocean. Before the arrival of the Americans, the indigenous population of the island had never seen planes and airports. From their perspective, the strangers climbed up the tower for praying (for flight instructions) whereupon their ancestors sent food. When the Americans left the island, the people built their own tower and started praying, hoping that the Gods would send presents… The hopeful believers lived with the expectation that a building and a symbolic act would lead to the same results. Such “Cargo Cults” occur when scenarios are imitated, without true understanding and because of this, do not produce the desired results. Large companies are often ‘hopeful believers’, wanting their organizations to be ‘more innovative’. They create innovation units trying to replicate start-ups and innovative organizations. But will these alone create the results they desire?

My experience driving innovation

My understanding of entrepreneurship comes not only from what I’ve learned during my Executive MBA at Hult but also through my own start-up experiences. I previously worked in Africa for the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH – a German federal enterprise that supports development and transformation processes worldwide. Whilst there, I co-created a digital management system, which ran as a start-up within our company. The same system is being introduced company-wide as it has out-performed market solutions from leading IT providers. I have also developed two other innovative business concepts. This experience taught me a lot about turning an innovative idea into a business model, pitching it to decision makers, succeeding and failing.

Lesson 1: Successful innovation requires leadership

First and foremost, a company needs to nurture a culture of innovation, which gives space to their staff to experiment, fail, learn and succeed. Although such culture has to be carried and lived by everyone in a company, it is the leadership who has to introduce it. Yet, this is a rather tricky task. At Hult, during one of the best courses I ever attended, Leading Globally, I learned that such an environment requires an understanding of leadership, which goes beyond traditional models. Instead of delivering pre-approved solutions to staff and allocating time and resources based on defined roles and responsibilities, new leadership qualities encompass being able to develop a vision, align people around a vision, empower employees to use their full potential, collaborate in networks and serving foremost customers, not primarily shareholders. 

Lesson 2: Innovation is not only about an initial idea but a method

Innovation or entrepreneurship is often associated with a “just do it” approach and many failures, which can lead to frustration and a waste of energy. This can be avoided by applying certain methods that help to separate good ideas from the bad ones.

In my projects, I have used so-called agile development methods, like design thinking. Design thinking is a human-centered approach, emphasizing the necessity to observe, identify and understand the needs of the end-users. Through the early creation and testing of prototypes, ideas are quickly evaluated and revised. The focus here is not on the detailed elaboration of ideas, but rather on extensive experimentation, testing and the gathering of new insights. Since such methods have an uncertain outcome, the application of them requires an environment, which is favorable for risk taking.

Lesson 3: Personal attributes of a company’s staff matter more than technical education

Besides a stimulating environment and methods that help to sort out ideas and transform good ones into viable solutions, a company requires employees who are willing to make use of this. Entrepreneurs are often associated with characteristics such as passion, self-motivation, open-mindfulness, positive approach to risk taking, self-believe, perseverance and so on. It is these personal qualities that are the determining factors for success or failure as an entrepreneur – not technical competencies. Studies have shown that only a small number of employees in medium and big sized companies have the characteristics essential to successful entrepreneurship. Thus companies, which take innovation seriously, should invest in attracting people with these personality traits and turn existing talents into thriving ‘intrapreneurs’.

In summary…

Creating innovation in companies is more than just a set of management tools. Innovation management is only successful if the leadership is able to adapt its role; applying agile methods focused on tangible results; supporting and attracting certain personality traits of employees. If however, we understand innovation as a managerial approach in the narrow sense, then companies are likely to follow the same fate as the people on the Melanesian island.

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