We are living through times of exponential changes.

Changes affected by customer behaviors and expectations, emerging and disruptive technologies, socio-economic, political and climate changes. The sense of urgency is high, and yet we are still attacking these problems with the same old tools.

And nowhere is that problem as obvious as in large, traditional organizations suffering from an identity crisis caused by digital disruption, lack of leadership, and talent scarcity. For innovation to work and flourish inside a large organization, a bigger and more comprehensive transformation needs to happen.

In prep for her keynote at Innov8rs Paris, we sat down with Sonja Kresojevic, a partner at Spinnaker and a senior executive with 20 years of global experience building products and transforming businesses, to talk about the obstacles innovators face at all levels of business.

You’ve been around this space for quite a while now and you’ve seen the field evolves. Tell us about the issues that you and everyone else are bumping into these days.

There are a number of key issues I have observed over the last couple of years. First one that comes to mind: lack of innovation strategy and a disconnect between innovation efforts and business strategy, making it really hard for innovation teams to show any significant business impact.

Furthermore, large companies are still being managed using outdated management techniques and processes, that are focused on optimizing execution of existing business models, and with a very low degree of organizational adaptability, making it hard if not impossible to change course and respond to new threats or opportunities in a timely manner.

But the most important issue, in my opinion, has to do with a leadership mindset and their resistance to change.

What we observe from engagement to engagement is lack of alignment at the leadership level, poor top-down communication, unclear roles and responsibilities, very little empowerment of teams, which are all significant problems that inhibit progress.

I’m consistently surprised that although they approach us asking for help, as soon as they understand the scope of change needed and what it may mean for them personally they quickly change the tune to: “It’s too risky to change”, “That will never work here”, and “What will happen to me if I empower my team?”

I think the big factor we need to take into consideration is the fear of the unknown. Until recently it was normal to be in one profession and often with the same company throughout one’s career. Those days are now over, and in a rapidly changing environment, we are asked to constantly reinvent ourselves. That is not a comfortable position to be for a lot of people in a position of leadership. Adding to that the pressure from shareholders focused only on short term results and we are where we are – trading future for a short term gain. All of that makes it really hard to prioritize work on disruptive innovation or organizational transformation that require significant investment in people, culture changes etc

Is this a dead-end street or are there routes and paths through/around this… a solution to this challenge?

I believe there is a solution, but it requires an important shift in the organizational mindset.

We have all worked for organizations where a lot of effort was invested in changing the culture through either individual “hero” efforts or through a community, bottom-up movement. And although those efforts work initially, they don’t result in a long-lasting change without leadership support. We need leaders with an ability to adjust their way of thinking, learning, doing and become comfortable with living in a state of constant change.

Otto Scharmer, from Theory U, talks about a blind spot in leadership which requires us to shift the inner place from which we operate in order to respond to change from a place of emerging future instead of relying on and repeating patterns from the past. We have too many examples around us as to what happens when people become detached from themselves, from society, and the world at large.

If you look at what’s happening with Brexit, refugee crisis or with climate change, it’s clear that we have become detached from ourselves, our purpose, even our humanity- otherwise we would have made better choices for ourselves, our kids and their future.

What’s happening inside large organizations is the same type of phenomenon. A lack of vision, a lack of purpose, no leadership, and people in denial, hoping problems will somehow resolve on their own.

And speaking from my personal experience, having spent the last three years not just building my business but going through a personal transformation, in order to adapt to all the changes, I had to shift from looking outwards to looking inside and ask myself some fundamental questions: Who am I? What am I here for? What do I stand for? What is my purpose? Am I living a life aligned with my values?

What I’ve learned is, that the system and self are very much connected and we can not change the system without changing ourselves as well. That means learning to slow down, be present and show up with an open mind, open heart and courage to embrace uncertainty, unlearn old behaviors and learn new ones. That’s what leadership is all about.

Essentially, you’re saying that if leadership doesn’t commit to it, it won’t happen – and that’s a very personal thing – yet that’s critical for the organization. So, where does this leadership start? What could be the turning points for individuals and for teams?

Well as I said, it starts with yourself; whatever your position is within the company. The more I work on myself, the more I work with leadership teams, the more I see that the change starts within. And to change and transform organizations leaders must learn to change and transform themselves first.

In my experience, successful leaders invest a lot of time and effort in personal transformation, whether it’s through coaching, training, therapy, yoga, meditation..whatever works, they all require a significant amount of time, money, energy and a lot of courage. It takes courage to be vulnerable. To show up and be seen. To talk about how you are feeling, to have hard conversations. To stand up in front of your organization and say, “I don’t have all the answers”. It’s a journey, and the first step is always the hardest.

And to be clear: I am not talking about just the most senior people in the organization stepping up. Wherever you are in the organization, the more you embrace the change, the more chance you have of making an impact. We need leadership at all levels. Not top-down, command and control, but mindful, selfless and compassionate. And we have seen some amazing examples of what leadership should look like in the recent months with a youth movement for climate change.

Which brings me to another important point, with new generations coming up who are not interested in working the nine-to-five and want a better balance between life and work, this becomes even more important. They want to believe in something and lead a life of purpose, perhaps even more so than we did when we were that age. So, unless we start to change these organizations we are going to run into huge talent issues.

We need to stop worrying about protecting the status quo and start worrying about how to unlock the potential and talent in people, how to inspire them, encourage them, empower them to be the best versions of themselves. Without that, we don’t stand a chance.

Let’s say I am the Innovation Director and I’m bumping into this, what kind of practical things can we start doing or not doing or just doing differently?

I think we need to start talking about how hard this is personally; I think that’s what’s missing.

After speaking at Innov8rs Atlanta last year, someone gave me feedback that essentially boiled down to “This is all nice but it’s just a polished version of what really happens”– and that’s true. When you go to a conference you present the highlights and you talk about success and learnings. You don’t talk about the nights you were wide awake at 3 am because you’ve had a difficult day.

Driving change inside large organizations can be a really lonely and hard, and you need a lot of support. What’s got me through it is having a really strong community to support me both within the organization as well as outside it.

People who were on a similar journey and who I could learn from as well as hours of coaching and therapy to unlock some of the old patterns, and a lot of yoga and meditation to help me learn to slow down and be more present.

I don’t think anyone quite knows what’s going to happen over the next ten years. It’s quite certain that we cannot continue with things as they are. There is so much movement and so much unhappiness on a larger scale, and people are affected by it.

I am hoping we can shift our outlook to the one of excitement and possibility, instead of fear. Embrace our passion and find the courage to speak our minds even if that means going against the “norm”. If you’re not happy with your job, go do something else. Do something you believe in because this is where the change happens when you passionately believe in something. We need to take our power back and start purposefully designing what the future looks together: whether it’s the new type of organizations or the new systems in which we live and operate in.

We can not continue to exist disconnected from ourselves and others, assuming one persona at home, another at work, third on social media. We need to start having real conversations about what’s important to us, our businesses, our families, to this planet.

It’s time for us as leaders to stop looking for answers elsewhere and look deep inside, as uncomfortable and scary as it is, change needs to start with us.


Join the conversation about leadership, transformation and change with Sonja at Innov8rs Paris, 10-12 April 2019.