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Embedding Innovation in Leadership

As we start a new year during a slow recovery, innovation will be at a premium as organizations strive to uncover new opportunities for growth. Yet many leaders have trouble thinking about (let alone driving) innovation when they're focused on managing through the still-challenging present.

Five years ago, GE (GE) launched a leadership development program called "Leadership, Innovation and Growth" (LIG) to stimulate growth and innovation from within the organization. The program created new ways to think and talk about innovation simply and practically, so it would grow into part of how leaders operated their business. Leadership teams from across GE's top 60 businesses have since participated in the program, and have learned how to translate innovative ideas and opportunities into initiatives with real results.

As GE prepares to launch the next iteration of LIG (focused on global growth), we've spent some time reflecting on what's worked and what needs improvement. We know the factors most responsible for LIG's success have value and relevance far beyond GE, especially in a slow-growth world. Organizations can teach innovation to their leaders and teams—so these employees can make what they learn in the classroom part of how they operate day to day. Here's the execution road map.

• Keep intact teams together for development. This is one of the simplest yet most differentiating aspects of teaching innovation. Leadership development programs often fall short of driving real change because managers don't go through the learning process together. Bringing together an entire team for a few days helps build consensus more quickly and fosters a greater commitment to applying new strategies across the operation.

• Secure leadership support. GE views ongoing learning as part of the job, and it reinforces the message from the top down, with Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Immelt participating in LIG and other development programs. Without the company's full commitment to providing its leadership bench the necessary time, resources, and ideas, workers will see management programs as a waste of time.

• Leverage actionable frameworks. GE applies a "three-box" framework to strategic planning that helps leaders balance managing through the present, which is largely about driving efficiencies, and creating the future, which is about innovation. Translating a concept like innovation into a workable framework enables leaders and their teams to apply new strategies with consistency and rigor across the organization.

• Create a common language. Similar to making actionable frameworks for innovation, constructing a common vocabulary team members can easily understand and adopt greatly improves chances that they will use what they learn.

• Conduct extensive follow-up. This might seem obvious, but all too often development programs end once people leave the classroom. You can increase the impact of training by retaining various touch points to see how participants integrate innovation strategies into everyday operations. Follow-up can take various forms, whether through workshops or ongoing consulting and guidance, but they should all focus on equipping leaders with tools and a framework they can easily apply.

• Sharing best practices. As successes emerge, leaders should encourage teams to share them—both to maintain the momentum of what's been learned and drive further adoption across the organization.

Company leaders have two jobs to do. The first is to make money, but the other—and perhaps more challenging—is to invest in the future. Leadership training programs should encourage leaders to think far beyond driving today's efficiencies. Through LIG, GE leadership teams come together on a recurring basis for this time to think in order to ensure learning happens continuously and that it's part of the operating cycle. Innovation, especially in a slow-growth world, won't happen solely through R&D investment in technology; R&D also means investing in people, to equip them to position their business for the future.

Vijay Govindarajan is the Earl C. Daum 1924 Professor of International Business at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. He writes a blog and a newsletter on innovation and execution. His most recent book is Reverse Innovation: Create Far From Home, Win Everywhere.

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