Innovative Leadership

Posted by on Aug 13, 2015 in Featured, Individuals, Miscellaneous, Organizations, Women | 0 comments

The road to success

In 2009, David Meerman Scott revealed the 325 most commonly used words and phrases found among more than 700K press releases issued by North American companies in the previous year. These expressions he termed gobbledygook because their meaning had become so diverse and watered down that no one could be certain what was intended.

Pride of place went to the word “innovate” with more than 51K uses. Thus, this idea of organizational innovation led by an innovative leader is obscure at best. In truth, it can mean almost anything; and so before we think about what leaders need to do, we need to understand first of all what it is that we want.

Historically, the word innovate was been associated with change, and change by its nature means doing something different. But modern usage has altered it to something else; to the idea of doing something that’s new. Newness, however, is in the eye of the beholder. There really isn’t anything new “under the sun.” All we really do is come up with different ways to explain what we’ve forgotten from one generation to another.

What is the goal of an innovation leader?

The goal of any leader, whether the term is prefixed by the word innovation or not, is to influence others. Influence implies change; either to do something different or to refrain from doing anything else. The adjective qualifies which one – in this case, to do something different, to be creative so that new ideas are generated, new products are invented and old ones are improved, and new services can be offered to customers and prospects.

All of this sounds very desirable, doesn’t it? What leader wouldn’t want these things for his or her organization?

But there’s a problem.Why isn’t it happening?

There would be no need for an innovative leader if organizations were already doing the things that such a person desired.

Is it because no such person has ever been at the reins of the organization in the past or that the need has suddenly arisen, and the company has moved into high gear to recruit the best person for the task?

These questions don’t seem to address the problem. They simply dance around the issue.

What’s the central problem?

It has to be something within the organization itself; that has been there all along. There has to be a root cause, and until that is dealt with, no one will be able to stimulate the innovation that he, she, or the organization longs for. It won’t happen because it can’t.

 Why don’t people innovate?

In order to get the right answer, you have to start with the right question. If you ask who we should hire so that people will innovate, then you’re asking the wrong question. That’s because it presumes that to date no one has had that ability. This is unlikely because the success of any company depends on it. If you had never been able to do it, then you probably wouldn’t have survived this long. That means that something has happened to take you from a state where you did come up with new ideas, products, and so on, to a stage where you’ve stopped. This is rarely because of one person. And that’s why asking who you should hire is the wrong question.

So why is it that people don’t innovate?

Broadly, there are two reasons.

The first is that the status quo has become acceptable. What that means is that everyone has become comfortable. Things are ticking over. The company is in profit. There’s neither too much work, nor too little. On those occasions when a new idea is expressed, you hear things such as, “Don’t rock the boat” or “We tried that, and it didn’t work” or “That’s not your job.”

The second reason is that the internal organizational structures prevent innovation.

How do they do that?

The chain-of-command is one way. Although there are fewer layers of management in most companies today, the attitudes that came with them are still rife. Employees are discouraged from going outside of their chain in order to get information from another.

Micromanagement is another way. Employees can be smothered by a manager who is constantly looking over their shoulder. Creativity follows an erratic and unpredictable path. Micromanagers won’t feel comfortable letting those they supervise act in this way.

The problem doesn’t end there.

Creativity involves failure, much more than following the status quo. Keeping things as they are can be done with minor “course corrections” – the kind that you’d use to drive on a straight road for 500 miles. Creativity is what is required to drive a 4 x 4 through an uncharted wilderness.

Thomas Edison, inventor of the first practical and affordable light bulb for use in the home, is attributed to have said that he didn’t fail 10K times – and that’s how many experiments he conducted – but rather than he had found that many ways in which what he was trying to do didn’t work.

Few companies are willing to allow people to fail enough to find the success they’re looking for. If a solution isn’t discovered right away, then the project is abandoned altogether.

General Colin Powell is famous for saying that “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to ask permission.” In organizations that penalize innovation rather than promote it, the risks are too high for most employees to take any initiative.

This is why there is little if any innovation: the culture promotes stagnation and the organization supports it.

No leader, however innovative, can fix that.

How can you become an innovative leader?

Having read this far, you shouldn’t need to be told. The key is to change your internal structures to support the attitudes you want. The order is crucial. You can’t expect people to shift into a creative mode without providing them with the right environment. There has to be a perceived freedom to think differently, and your employees need to know that it is safe for them to do so. In other words, they need to be convinced that their jobs and promotion opportunities won’t be at risk if things don’t go according to plan.

In addition, you need to reward those who are willing to go down this path. Not everyone will want to do this; but for those who do, training in new skills and professional development should be offered to them.

When these things are in place and functioning as they should be, then you’ll be able to “feel” the difference.

And if you listen carefully, you might be able to “hear” the mental wheels of innovation beginning to turn.

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