It's important not to see innovation as an mere ‘add on', something that can be thought about once or twice a year. Or, even worse, just thought about when things are going wrong and you urgently need to catch up with your competitors. 

Instead, as an CEO, you want to bake innovation into every aspect of your business. You want to ensure not only that all your colleagues think about innovation constantly and that it's a key part of your culture, but also that your peers, customers, suppliers, and everyone else besides think of you as an innovation leader in your industry. 

But how do you do that? In this article, we look at 3 different ways to ensure that your company is at the forefront of innovation. 

1. Set up a dedicated R&D team

Firstly, consider setting up a dedicated R&D function within your business. 

It's not enough to make innovation a part of everyone's role. Very often businesses try to create a culture of innovation by giving every employee a day a month, or even a day a week, to work on their own ideas or side project. This practice was popularised by Google. But, too often, it's just a gimmick. 

The truth is that even if you try very hard to get everyone involved in innovation, it will likely just fall to the bottom of their list. If an team member's core focus and responsibility is sales, they will understandably end up focusing any extra time they have on sales. Or, instead, just using the extra day to relax from the day-to-day grind of selling. 

If you want to take innovation seriously, you need team members who are directly and specifically responsible for innovation. And the best way to do this is to set-up a dedicated R&D function within your business or, alternatively, appoint dedicated R&D executives within your different internal teams. 

This approach works for a number of reasons. Firstly, it means that you will have a specific individual who you can hold to account for delivering innovation. Secondly, it means that you can go out of your way to hire people with the specific, targeted skills for innovation. 

Innovation requires technical skills, such as creative thinking, research techniques, and horizon scanning. These skills might be in short supply among your current team. It also gives you an opportunity to find people with a genuine track-record of success on innovation in the past, which is a good predictor that they will be able to move the dial for your business too. 

2. Appoint a Chief Innovation Officer

Aside from setting up a dedicated R&D team, it's important to send out a broader message to your company that you are taking innovation seriously. And one of the best ways to do that is poach and appoint a Chief Innovation Officer. 

This will showcase to people both inside and outside of your company that you're taking innovation seriously as a business, and that innovation is being fed into your strategy at the highest levels of the company. 

But, over and above providing strategic and technical leadership on innovation, your Chief Innovation Officer can also play a more public role in communicating your innovation credentials and strategy to the wider industry and world. 

In particular, you can make sure that public communication and visibility is a key part of your Chief Innovation Officer's responsibility. At its most basic, this might mean leveraging your CIO in marketing material to clients and partners, showcasing that innovation is at the heart of your business. 

At its most advanced, it might mean building a full executive thought leadership campaign around your CIO, including securing interviews and media coverage, building out their personal social media, and securing some stand-out multimedia content. 

By building out the profile of your CIO and turning them into a brand ambassador for your company, you can find a way to constantly showcase your innovation leadership not only to your team members and other management, but suppliers, partners, customers, and investors too. 

3. Ringfence your R&D budget from cuts

Thirdly, ringfence your R&D budget. It might sound simple, but it can send a strong and important message. 

Often, during a downturn or amid difficult times, the R&D and innovation budget is the first to be cut. Given that we're facing 12 months of potentially difficult economic news alongside a higher interest rate environment, it can be enticing to batten down the hatches, cut all spending that doesn't deliver in the short-term, and focus only on short-term sales and marketing. 

If you want to position yourself as an innovation leader, this is the wrong thing to do. On the one hand, it sends the signal to all your stakeholders that you consider innovation to be a ‘nice to have' rather than a necessity. 

But, more importantly, you might be missing a very easy win here: faced with a downturn, your competitors will likely slash their budgets. So if you take a principled stand not to cut your innovation budget and speak about ringfencing it instead, it'll send a loud signal to the industry that you're a real leader on innovation. 

Innovation is difficult, and for many businesses it doesn't come naturally. In fact, for many businesses it end up being a simple afterthought. However, if you want to be a leader on innovation in your sector, you might want to consider taking up some of these ideas.