Interview Of The Week

Interview Of The Week: George Krasadakis, Innovation Leader

George Krasadakis, a technology and innovation leader and corporate advisor, is the author of The Innovation Mode. He has more than two decades of experience working in tech startups, Big Tech and consulting firms, including Microsoft and Accenture’s Global Center for Innovation. Krasadakis has architected various innovation frameworks, set up innovation labs, designed and built ideation systems, established digital prototyping teams, and architected large-scale innovation gamification programs. His expertise spans digital product development, software engineering, data science, and innovation leadership. He has filed more than 20 patents in the fields of artificial intelligence, analytics, and IoT and has led more than 80 data-driven projects from concept to launch, for more than 10 multinational corporations in three countries. He is also the founder of four technology startups. Krasadakis was recently interviewed by The Innovator about how to create an innovation culture.

Q: Nearly every company on the planet is trying to create an innovation culture. Most are failing. Why do you think that is the case?

GK: Establishing a culture of innovation is not easy. This is partly due to the fact that companies do not have sufficient clarity regarding the foundation of an innovation culture and the mechanisms that allow it to grow. A true innovation culture is based on authentic behaviors of curious people who believe in the organizational purpose and are ready to take risks and experiment – frequently and proactively. This culture can only evolve from within, organically: it needs time, the right environment, and strong signals from the leadership reassuring the importance of innovation as the means of achieving bold organizational goals.

Very often companies attempt to fix their innovation culture through isolated innovation programs. These can only bring minor, ephemeral improvements. They typically fail to drive a substantial cultural boost because they approach innovation frivolously – they stay on the surface. Even well-designed, expensive cultural programs that, for example, introduce the right innovation tools, ceremonies, behaviors, and role models, do not always deliver the desired outcome. The main reason is that they don’t invest in the organic growth of the innovation culture, which requires an internal community of innovators, a core of inspired and curious people who experiment, learn and share continually. These natural innovators are seen as role models – they attract broader attention and bring more people into this special innovation mode.

Q: You wrote a book called The Innovation Mode. What are some of the key takeaways?

GK: The Innovation Mode explains how to architect a company as a truly innovative and agile organization. The key message of the book is that every company can reach the innovation mode – this special mode of operation where innovation happens naturally, where all the innovation processes and behaviors are fully embedded in the operating system of the organization. The book sets this innovation mode as the target and then explains how to get there – it presents the technology, the processes, and the cultural improvements that help the company to become highly responsive to signals coming from the market by means of ideation, fast experimentation, concept validation, and product development.

The book emphasizes the importance of the innovation culture and defines it as a system of values, behaviors, symbols, and mental models that embrace novelty and change as the drivers of business improvement and success. This definition refers to six specific values, namely trust, safety, openness, curiosity, purposefulness, and healthy competition. The book presents the most frequent innovation blockers – among others, the weak link between innovation activities and organizational purpose, the bureaucratic processes, the fear of failure, and the leadership disconnect.

At the technology and process level, the book defines an essential innovation framework, a set of key capabilities that can help any organization to innovate. Among other capabilities, this framework contains an idea management system enabling companies to organize a corpus of ideas that are handled as innovation assets, an innovation intelligence service enabling the company to listen to the market and a measurement framework for innovation along with components for effective information and knowledge sharing.

In terms of improving the culture, the book recommends various hacks to make the organizational structure less rigid and easier to navigate and explains the importance of forming an active community of innovators.

Q: Could you share one or two of those hacks?

GK: One way to make the corporate structure less rigid is by introducing cross-team, skip-level meetings with an innovation agenda: an informal scheme that encourages interaction between innovators and corporate leaders across teams and divisions. For instance, an innovator who has a well-articulated innovation opportunity – according to a predefined compact format – is encouraged to search for the right stakeholders in order to pursue feedback and guidance. With the right orchestration, the ‘skip level for innovation’ program energizes people, connects levels and siloed groups, and bridges the information and attitude gaps. It sends the right message to all directions by promoting meaningful communication vertically and horizontally. In parallel, it increases the chances of spotting innovation opportunities.

Another hack is a program that promotes side-innovation projects and encourages people to form virtual, multidisciplinary teams with the intent to experiment with innovation opportunities. This may be defined as an internal innovation program that is sourced primarily through the organizational slack – the state at which nott all the human resources of the organization are fully utilized. It enables employees who happen to have some availability, to engage with innovation activities and network with the broader community of innovators, across divisions and groups. In this context, people self-organize and innovate -they discover interesting projects and interact across levels and beyond the boundaries of their teams and their formal areas of responsibility. Through these hands-on innovation initiatives, people build strong professional links, they break the silos and network across teams and throughout the hierarchy of the company.

Q: What are some practical ideas for ensuring that innovation flourishes during lockdown?

GK: To empower innovation during the lockdown – or in the context of the emerging hybrid work model – companies need to simplify their innovation processes, make them always on and available to all. This means that people should be able to easily discover the innovation agenda of the organization – i.e., problems worth solving and how they align to the organizational purpose, business ideas, product concepts along with a timeline for planned innovation activities and events – the innovation calendar of the company.

A practical way to empower innovation – especially when a significant percentage of the workforce is working from home – is by providing a digital home for innovation – or what I call the innovation portal. A well-designed innovation portal offers not only static content but also the means to discover, share, connect and collaborate – it stands as the single point of reference, the entry point to any innovation-related activity taking place in the organization. The portal helps people to discover innovation resources, share knowledge and innovation stories, exchange ideas, connect and align their innovation efforts. A properly run innovation portal can evolve as a ‘gateway’ to the ‘community of innovators’ – allowing people across the organization to reach out to innovators to get advice, propose solutions, or join collaboration efforts.

An additional way to empower innovation during lockdown is by establishing a backlog of problems worth solving. This backlog of problems should be visible to all – people should be encouraged to contribute by submitting their ideas and collaborating in forming potential solutions. In a remote setup, this can be further supported by frequent, open review and prioritization sessions or innovation collaboration events. Similarly, a series of lightweight online hackathons can play an important role in keeping the innovation spirit high.   

At the same time, companies need to make their innovation function more visible. One way to do this is by systematically producing high-quality content on innovation-related topics (e.g innovation stories from within or from the market, technology updates, emerging trends, etc.). By distributing this content via the innovation portal, newsletters, and online events people get more connected to innovation activities. Furthermore, companies can extend their innovation reward programs to acknowledge and promote both formal and informal innovation activities – e.g., top innovators of the month to get time to present their innovation stories during an online all-hands meeting, or to secure the resources they need to further pursue their ideas.

Q: What, in your opinion, are the key leadership qualities that inspire teams to build great digital products?

GK: Product leadership requires a range of different skills and qualities. On the one hand, a product leader must be able to demonstrate product sense – e.g., understand user needs, the market gaps, and the emerging trends, in order to define the right products that effectively solve real-world problems and, at the same time, serve the objectives of the organization. On the other hand, product leaders must be able to drive the execution – the development of the actual product and its growth strategy towards the commercial (or otherwise defined) success. This journey involves tough decisions and trade-offs and requires the ability to handle ambiguity, to use data to make and justify decisions, the willingness to take calculated risks, the readiness to accept failure, and also the reflexes and decisiveness to pivot in the right direction if needed. In parallel, product leaders should be able to establish an applied product innovation approach – one that empowers the discovery of novel product features that keep the users happy, and the product differentiated against the competition. On top of these skills, product leaders must demonstrate empathy and exceptional communication and story-telling skills, as they should be able to articulate and present the vision of the product with clarity.

Q: What have you learned during your career about what works – and what doesn’t -that might be helpful to others?

GK:  I have led innovation and product engineering initiatives in both startups and multinational corporations and there are common themes regarding what works for innovation and what doesn’t. For example, I would name bureaucracy, politics, risk-avoidance, and disconnect from the leadership as the most frequent innovation blockers in a corporate environment. In many cases, I’ve experienced great ideas being abandoned due to inertia; or outstanding innovators struggling to navigate the organizational structure and find the right stakeholders to seek support. On the other hand, I have witnessed small but inspired teams that managed to produce impressive solutions, surprisingly fast, although they had limited resources. What makes the difference in such cases, is the belief in the purpose, the mission, and the vision of the product along with the ability of the team to learn quickly and pivot as needed.

Business leaders should not confuse real innovation with innovation theatre. The latter is what happens when organizations invest in bringing in the look and feel of innovation – fancy collaboration spaces, innovation events, hackathons, and innovation labs – but without the true essence of innovation. In such cases, the initial excitement fades away rapidly due to the lack of alignment between innovation and the purpose of the organization, or due to the absence of meaningful outputs. Ironically, such innovation programs can even damage the ability of the organization to innovate as people eventually realize that innovation activities do not really serve the business goals of the company.  

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About the author

Jennifer L. Schenker

Jennifer L. Schenker

Jennifer L. Schenker, an award-winning journalist, has been covering the global tech industry from Europe since 1985, working full-time, at various points in her career for the Wall Street Journal Europe, Time Magazine, International Herald Tribune, Red Herring and BusinessWeek. She is currently the editor-in-chief of The Innovator, an English-language global publication about the digital transformation of business. Jennifer was voted one of the 50 most inspiring women in technology in Europe in 2015 and 2016 and was named by Forbes Magazine in 2018 as one of the 30 women leaders disrupting tech in France. She has been a World Economic Forum Tech Pioneers judge for 20 years. She lives in Paris and has dual U.S. and French citizenship.