Ongoing transformation

Ajit Gunewardene

Innovation is a prerequisite for sustainable growth in an increasingly globalised world – Ajit Gunewardene articulates this view, explaining that “innovation creates new products, methods and ideas.”

“Businesses that innovate are able to scale up, add new customers and seize a bigger share of the market. Innovation makes it easier to grow regardless of the size of an organisation because innovative companies attract the best talent!” he exclaims.

He goes on to explain that a company known for innovation will always stand out from competitors. In his view, innovation is a corporate imperative – it is the key idea shaping corporate life and helping leaders to conceive previously unimagined strategic options. Innovators predict changes in the market and provide solutions before people even realise they need them.

Gunewardene maintains that “innovation provides an edge in being able to enter new markets faster and deeper. It puts companies on the offensive. The company that builds a culture of innovation is on a path to growth. The company that fails to innovate is on a path to obsolescence.”

In his opinion, a culture of innovation is fundamentally different from one that emphasises mergers and acquisitions (M&A) or cost cutting, both in theory and practice.

“For one thing, innovation leaders have an entirely different set of skills, temperament and psychology. The M&A leader is a deal maker and transaction oriented. Once a deal is done, he or she moves on to the next. The innovation leader, while perhaps not a creative genius, is effective at evoking the skills of others needed to build a culture of innovation,” he explains.

Collaboration is essential for innovation, he stresses, for failure is a regular visitor. Innovation leaders are comfortable with uncertainty and have an open mind; they’re receptive to ideas from very different disciplines, he asserts.

These leaders have organised innovation into a disciplined process that is replicable; and they have developed the tools and skills to pinpoint and manage the risks inherent in innovation.

“Not everyone has these attributes. But companies cannot build a culture of innovation without cultivating people who do!” Gunewardene points out.

At Harvard Business School, a course on innovation segregates the topic into three innovation styles: sustaining innovation, low end disruption and disruption, adding that how and when you leverage each type of innovation depends on the position of your organisation in the market. More importantly, innovation isn’t one-size-fits-all as there are different ways in which to create value.

To succeed, companies need to see innovation not as something special that only special people can do but something that can become routine and methodical, taking advantage of the capabilities of ordinary people.

“It’s easy to put it off because you are rewarded for today’s results, because the organisation doesn’t seem to support or value innovation, because you don’t know where to find ideas, because innovation is risky or because it isn’t easily measured. But these are excuses, not reasons,” he cautions.

Innovation is a process that all leaders can use and continue to improve. It is broader, involves more people, can happen more often, and is more manageable and predictable than most people think. But making innovation routine involves people.

Gunewardene explains: “In real life, ideas great or good do not seamlessly work their way from silo to silo. From the instant someone devises a solution or product, its journey to the market (or into oblivion) is a matter of making connections, again and again.”

“Managing these interactions is the crux of building an innovative organisation. To put it another way, anyone can innovate; but practically no one can innovate alone.”

Ajit Gunewardene is the Founder and Chairman of Bluestone Capital