Wednesday, 21 November 2012
By Scott Edinger – Forbes
While many organizations focus on addressing problems, the most successful focus on raising the bar. One of the ways they do this is by creating a culture where innovation thrives. When this organizational strength is magnified, it can become a source of competitive advantage.
One of my clients asked me to help identify the best practices of leaders who were the most innovative in his organization. In many interviews and meetings, there was very little discussion about brainstorming, generating ideas, prototyping, and the like—the kind of things most of us think about when we consider institutionalizing innovation. Instead, I heard what many of us would call excellent practices for leadership. My one-sentence conclusion: Excellence in leading innovation has far less to do with the leader having innovative ideas; it has everything to do with how that leader creates a culture where innovation and creativity thrives in every corner. Okay, maybe I cheated by having a sentence with a semi-colon but you get the gist in short form.
So if that is the conclusion, then what are the things that leaders must do to foster innovation? Here are five strategies that make a profound difference.
1. Focus on outcomes
I was struck by the fact that leaders of these teams put a great deal of effort into clearly envisioning and talking about the outcomes in a given scenario, rather than directing how those outcomes would be achieved. They did not micromanage, nor did they abdicate. Rather, they painted a picture of the future and held their teams accountable for how to get there. Clearly, one of the ways that innovation is cultivated is by having leaders who make sure everyone involved knows the outcome and strategic goals of any objective. By focusing on outcomes and results, these leaders free up a lot of energy for the creative process of making it happen.
2. Develop reciprocal trust
Not the garden varieties of trust, but complete and shared confidence in one another. I use the term “reciprocal trust” in these instances because it was very clear that this was not simply confidence that someone could be counted on to do a good job–there was a much more palpable sense of trust that permeated the relationships. Direct reports and close colleagues often described their leaders as protectors and I frequently heard the comment “he/she covered my back.” Certainly consequences existed for going outside the parameters of a project, but never for trying something that didn’t work.
3. Challenge the status quo
The leaders I spoke with were by no means rebels, but they were also not afraid to challenge people higher up in the management chain. I did hear in a number of cases that they are “fearless,” or that they possess a willingness to take on difficult issues, even when it means expressing disagreement with higher levels in the organization. They separate issues from people and are able to disagree, without being disagreeable. Doing so cultivates tremendous respect from their colleagues. One peer in particular used the term “healthy creative tension” when describing the atmosphere of meetings led by the innovator.
4. Be inspiring
“For innovation to exist you have to feel inspired!” said one source. Based on the research in the book I co-authored, The Inspiring Leader, (McGraw Hill 2009) I was not shocked to hear so many comments related to this topic, because most of the data indicate that no other leadership competency influences productivity and engagement more profoundly. Similarly, when people feel inspired by a leader they are more inclined to give more effort and go the extra mile on a project. That extra effort and commitment is often what produces innovation.
If the goal is easy to achieve, there is not much need to innovate. A trend that I observed was that these leaders set stretch goals that were very difficult to achieve. Moreover, they were able to get members of their team bought in to the power of achieving those goals. The goals set within these innovative groups required entirely new approaches in order for the goal to be achieved. The combination of need for innovation and commitment to the goal fueled creative change.
So the next time you are wracking your brain to come up with the idea that will save the day, or the innovative solution to your problems, or just a better way to do something, put your efforts into fostering and promoting innovation within your organization. A culture where innovation thrives in every corner is exponentially more valuable than a culture which anoints one or even a few people as “the innovative ones.” If you create an environment of innovation, who knows where your next great idea will come from?
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