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Is Your Company an Innovator? These 5 Traits Make the Difference

November 5, 2019, 12:00 PM UTC
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What do you want to become when you grow up? Someone asked me this question recently and it was harder to answer than I expected. It’s easy to think of a response when you’re seven years old—when the world is your neighborhood and the sidewalk is your only highway. But as an adult? A different story.

When I was a kid growing up in Germany, I wanted to become a pilot and explore life beyond the Alps. But as we grow up and the horizon seems closer, our options seem less clear. Our answers become, for lack of a better word, blurry.

So many companies face these same struggles. How do you define what you want to become in a world that’s changing so rapidly, with competition ever fiercer? And then: How do you actually become it? The simple answer is innovation. But what does that even mean, and does it mean the same thing inside the C-suite as it does to the customers their businesses serve?

My company, Mastercard, wanted answers. So we partnered with the Harvard Business Review to ask leading executives what they thought and compiled them in a report published today called “Become 2020.” In it, you’ll also find our new Business Innovators Index, which explores key differentiators that separate leading innovators from their peers.

What did we find? First, that most organizations understand the importance of innovation for financial success. What’s more, nearly half of consumers consider it a high priority in their purchasing decisions.

Yet only 17% of organizations qualify as innovation leaders, according to our research.

We found that there are five common traits that distinguish innovation leaders from everyone else: speed to action, data-driven decision making, a commitment to innovation by leadership, an entrepreneurial culture, and a relentless focus on the customer.

The key word here is common—not just because the traits were the most prominent among innovation leaders, but also because these attributes are common knowledge. Ask your favorite business executive or wide-eyed intern what’s most important for a successful business and they’ll likely respond the same way.

Why 17% then? Because that knowledge doesn’t always translate to action. Innovation leaders are rare because execution is difficult. Customers increasingly expect it. As Gabrielle Cournoyer, vice president of cards and payment solutions for National Bank of Canada, told us in the study: “We don’t set the pace anymore. Our consumers set the pace.”

Two-thirds of the business executives we surveyed see increased customer expectations for new technologies as the top trend impacting their customer experience strategies.

Innovation leaders focus less on releasing products they think consumers want and more on meeting unmet consumer needs. Most of the executives in our survey—72%—strongly agree that consumer insight is a vehicle for innovation. That means companies need better methods, tools, and data to understand consumers in quantitative and qualitative ways.  

Our report reveals a problematic disconnect: There are twice as many consumers who say innovation is a top indicator for products and services they purchase as there are companies that qualify as innovation leaders.

Sure, innovation is complicated, costly, risky, and laden with stakeholders. But we found that leaders blow past these challenges in many ways. They don’t rely on hunches or piecemeal improvements. They think big and they take risks—more than 40% of innovation leaders prioritize the ambitious, exploratory, groundbreaking projects known as “moonshots,” we found. But they are thoughtful and methodical about both.

They also support a culture that embraces failure in practice by testing a broad pipeline of ideas: scaling what works, killing what doesn’t, and rewarding those who take risks.

So what do I want to become when I grow up? As an adult, I realize that question isn’t what intrigues me most. The thrill is in the journey and the choices you make along the way. How fast will you go? In which direction? How will you respond when life throws you a curveball? In business innovation as in life, the destination isn’t nearly as exciting as the trip to get there.

Michael Miebach is the chief product and innovation officer of Mastercard.