Innovation is actually category leadership

Kieran Flanagan   @ThinkKieranF

A lot of people talk about innovation. Many professionals also think they are actively innovating within their organisations. However, much of what is called innovation might be better understood as iterative improvement that builds on what already exists, rather than breaking the status quo down and reinventing its successor.

Of course, iterative improvement is incredibly important, as well as being financially and culturally impactful. It also enlists many of the same tools and processes of innovation. Additionally, it feeds on and profits from our bias towards the familiar and the already understood. That being said, iterative improvement alone can become a risky strategy in an environment that is ripe for commercial and cultural transformation, what many of us think of as ‘true innovation.’

True innovation involves more than just new product development or service design and should, in fact, be thought of as category leadership. 

In other words, not only are you tweaking around the edges of current thinking, systems, processes and output, you’re actively transforming your industry and charting a new course for your field into the future. 

To be a true innovator requires more than expertise and more than creative problem solving. To drive innovation, you also need to be a ‘thought leader.’ So, what does this require?

1. Ideation - Add to the canon of your field 

Perhaps the best distinction to be made between being an expert or an authority, and true thought leadership, lies in your capacity to develop your own unique intellectual property. 

Experts and authorities know how things have been done and even how things should be done, but unless they can also imagine, inspire and implement new ways that things might be done, they stop short of thought leadership.

Consider what change is needed in your industry, and of these changes, decide which do you want to be known for leading. Then, be aware that whether you are fighting for a positive new possibility or against a current negative, you will be in for a fight either way.

2. Inspiration - Build engagement around your ideas

Great ideas are a dime a dozen. More importantly, great ideas often fail while inferior products and services dominate their categories. The truth is, as much as we would like to believe in meritocracy in the commercial, political and organisational worlds, a more realistic expectation might be populist democracy.

This means that our success in transforming our category has less to do with the quality of our product or service (assuming of course that an ‘acceptable’ level of quality and efficacy has been achieved) and significantly more to do with the quality of our engagement around our ideas.

Rather than leaving ‘our babies’ to fend for themselves out in the open marketplace, we need to nurture them, advocate for them and provide them with a supportive and influential network.

3. Implementation - Build it, then better it

Finally, to be a true innovator, we must be willing to go to market and test, learn from feedback and continually improve our thinking and our offering.

If a great idea is nothing without inspiration, then inspiration is of little value without implementation.

Too many great ideas die on the vine, but not because of a lack of quality. Nor is it due to too little excitement in the early stages. Far more determinant of your innovation success or failure, is a lack of will and too little action. 

If our ideas are important enough to us personally, and will be positively transformative for those we seek to serve, shouldn’t we also be willing to back ourselves and to lead the change we seek to make in the world?

So, by all means improve, iterate and increase the relevance and salience of what you do already. But while you’re doing that, make time to consider how you might lead your category and drive true innovation.

Kieran Flanagan is an author, speaker, trainer and thought leader. She speaks on Transformational Leadership, Creative Problem Solving and Critical thinking. Kieran helps leaders, teams and organisations to be more commercially creative and to make positive change & “make change positive” by developing the following Forever Skills: 

#Innovation - Creativity & Problem Solving

#Collaboration - Teamwork & Team Dynamics

#Inspiration - Engagement & Presentation Mastery

#Transformation - Change & Leadership

Find out how Kieran can help you and your team develop commercial creativity and “make change positive” through her Keynote Presentations & Training Workshops. Contact or visit