Silicon Valley Times

Crafting an Innovative Future with Author Stephen Wunker

Crafting an Innovative Future with Author Stephen Wunker

Crafting an Innovative Future with Author Stephen Wunker

In this insightful conversation with author Stephen Wunker, we go above and beyond about how tech giants like Microsoft and Logitech encourage innovation within their companies. Wunker shows how important it is to be ambidextrous in the tech business, balancing practical excellence with new ideas that change things. In his book called “The Innovative Leader,” he talks about a four-step process for successfully leading innovation. He stresses the importance of having clear goals, ways to help others, and a culture that encourages innovation. Wunker uses examples from business leaders like Satya Nadella and Jeff Bezos to show how important it is to focus on customers and make quick decisions to keep innovation going. He also talks about the fine line between taking risks and being stable, and he supports a planned approach to trying new things. Lastly, Wunker gives useful tips for people who want to become tech leaders. He stresses the importance of using incentives, skill development, and building links to encourage an innovative attitude in their teams and groups.

Can you share some key insights from your research about how tech leaders like those at Microsoft and Logitech foster innovation within their organizations?

More than any other industry, tech needs to stay ambidextrous. Leaders need to keep systems delivering well while at the same time pushing staff to innovate in quite new directions. Microsoft does this partly through having distinct lanes for different types of innovation, while it invites staff from even close-to-the-core businesses to attend regular events like Researcher of the Amazing, which showcase leaps in other fields that can expand everyone’s horizons. Logitech, for its part, ensures that bold innovations have space to operate. Its CEO, Bracken Darrell, told us, “Gravity is the strongest closest to the business’s core. If you want to do dramatic innovation, you must get far away where you can break from gravity. Sometimes that means a separate organization.”

In your book, “The Innovative Leader,” you mention successful formulas for leading organizations innovatively. Could you elaborate on some of these strategies, particularly in the context of tech companies?

We found that successful innovative leaders shared a common four-step process. First, they think through their own leadership style and whether it encourages the sort of innovative behaviors they want in their organization. Then they articulate a very clear set of aspirations and guardrails. That’s a critical step, especially in tech where you can innovate in so many directions; a survey we did recently showed that 52% of corporate innovators said that lack of clear goals was their top challenge. Third, leaders build mechanisms in their organizations – whatever their size – to ensure that good ideas have somewhere to go, and that ideas are developed in ways appropriate to them. Finally, they cultivate a culture that encourages people to display the right behaviors in making the hundreds of daily decisions that senior management will never even get to consider.

What are some common traits or practices you’ve observed among tech leaders who have been particularly successful in sustaining innovation over the long term?

Here are two. First, intense focus on the customer and unceasing questioning about how to meet customer’s Jobs to be Done. Scott Cook, from Intuit, and Jeff Bezos have demonstrated that over and over. It keeps the companies as leaders in their fields and always exploring. Second, decisiveness. There’s a time for investigation, and then there’s a time to set a course and focus. An effective innovative leader knows when to shift from one to the other. Look at what Satya Nadella did with pivoting hard into AI, and even when he came close to hiring most of OpenAI’s team earlier this year over the course of a single weekend. He makes a clear decision and puts the resources of his corporation behind it.

Could you provide examples from your research of innovative leadership approaches that have led to tangible results within tech companies, whether in terms of product development, market expansion, or cultural transformation?

Let’s talk about advice from Ariel Katz, Founder and CEO of the medical information sharing and collaboration platform H1. For Katz, sustaining success boils down to a simple formula. He told us, “We set incredibly ambitious goals, then we hire people who are independent self-starters and hold people accountable for those goals. So everybody is racing toward those goals, and they see other teams in the company racing too so it pushes them to keep on reaching. Now, I don’t have to be the one pushing hard anymore; it comes from them.” To keep coherence in these situations of constant striving, there should be clear markers of culture. H1 establishes mantras to keep people on the same page, such as ABCD—Always Be Collecting Data. People in the company might have totally different focuses in their work, but these mantras generate a common way of doing things that enables them to work smoothly alongside each other even while their organization is moving at warp speed. It’s rapidly gaining business through these efforts, and its most recent valuation pushed it close to unicorn status.

How do you see the role of risk-taking and experimentation in the leadership styles of tech innovators, and how do they balance this with the need for stability and predictability in their organizations?

It’s all about staging bets. Venture Capitalists have a far worse hit rate on their investments than public companies, yet their overall return on investment is significantly better. This is because they invest a little bit to reduce their risks a lot, then they increase their investments as the bets become more certain. They’re in the information acquisition business. Leaders of tech firms – even small ones – can operate in a similar way. Create lanes for novel ideas, give them a bit of time and money without losing focus on your core, focus the investment on the most important risks and unknowns, relentlessly kill off those that aren’t working out, and double down on those that have the most promise.

Your book emphasizes lessons for both individual leaders and their organizations. What are some practical steps that aspiring tech leaders can take to cultivate an innovative mindset and drive innovation within their teams or companies, based on your research findings?

We talk about three C’s: carrots, capabilities, and connections. Give people incentives – carrots – to not just come up with great ideas but to come up with great questions or important learnings about existing ideas. The incentives don’t have to include money but could be public recognition, which goes a long way. For capabilities, ensure that people have a basic set of skills, like framing customer Jobs to be Done, so that even people in Engineering roles can think more like those in Product or Insights. This brings diversity into your set of concepts – which is good for innovation – and it provides a common language so that ideas originating in one function get translated cleanly into others. Finally, establish ways for would-be innovators to create informal connections with each other in a company. Book clubs, discussions on eclectic innovation-related topics, and even occasional competitions can be ways to connect innovators across silos and find opportunities in the intersections.

Find more information on Steve Wunker’s The Innovative Leader: Step-By-Step Lessons from Top Innovators For You and Your Organization

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