Leadership for Innovation – What you can do to create a culture conducive to innovation

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There are many ingredients that need to be brought together when wanting to create an innovative organisation. However, there is one thing that can make or break it: leadership.

Preconditions: sincerity and consistency

‘Innovation is key to the future of our organisation’ – it is essential that the leadership mean this when they say it. They need to believe it in their hearts, not only their heads, and they need to live this conviction through deeds, not words. Hence emphasising the importance of innovation in presentations and putting it into corporate communication is not enough. People in your organisation will observe closely what you are doing. Are your actions matching your words? Are you truly serious about supporting innovation? As people react to the behaviours they observe rather than the words they hear, what you say needs to be consistent with what you do, and it needs to be consistent over time. Successful innovation relies on supportive values and behaviours, and as it is about these values and behaviours being consistent over time.

Professor Albert Mehrabian has undertaken research into how we as human beings construct meaning. He found that only 7% are based on the spoken words. 38% are based on the tone of voice and a mind boggling 55% are based on body language.

What you can do to support innovation through the three phases of the innovation process: search, selection, and implementation

Searching for innovation opportunities

It is not enough to ask people for ideas and more innovation. Good ideas about what? Innovation of what kind? You need to give your staff an inspiring vision that the ideas are to contribute towards, and you need to create a shared language around innovation that brings everyone to the same page. The word ‘inspire’ is deliberate and important because you cannot tell people to be more innovative, you have to inspire them to be so. As Antoine de Saint-Exupery (1900-1944) author and pilot says in his book The Little Prince,

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea”

You need to ensure that appropriate processes and structures are in place; appropriate in the sense that they need to support the kinds of innovations you’d like to see. More likely than not this means that you will have more than one process, or at least different stages and gates for different levels of innovation (eg incremental vs radical).

Do employees in your organisation know where to go with their ideas? Do they understand the organisational challenges and ambitions? Is there a process in place to capture, build on, evaluate and develop ideas? Is it assured that those submitting ideas get timely feedback? Will employees be able to understand and accept that decision? This is another reason why a strong vision is so important: you need something against which you assess ideas. If they do not contribute to achieving your vision you might we well use your resources on other projects.

“You have to roam the corridors of your organisation and actively seek out the ideas that might be hiding in the different parts of the organisation”.

It is also not enough to wait for people to come forwards with their ideas. Leaders in organisation should take it upon themselves to actively seek ideas and actively listening to what people have to say – inside the organisation (as well as outside). If you are sitting in your office day in, day out, you are not likely to encounter exciting ideas. Remember, the truly exciting things might be so ridiculous that people are reluctant to submit them formerly, but they might tell you if asked. This is not only about finding ideas but also about sending the message that you are serious about innovation throughout to the organisation.

Also remember, the greater the number of players, and the greater the number of interactions between the players, the greater the number of outcomes that you can get. (You may want to read up on complexity theory for support of this!)

Selecting radical innovation opportunities

Be clear: if you want different levels of innovation, e.g. incremental and radical, you have to use different selection criteria for each. The surest way of killing anything remotely radical is to apply your standard selection criteria, which are likely to be aligned to support incremental changes.

You may also want to ensure that the ideas are communicated in a way that the decisions makers can understand; beware that the way information is presented is critically influencing whether a positive or negative decision is being made.

You may also want to think about the risk preferences of those involved. Are they comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity, and how strongly will this influence their decision? Internal people might have a preference for the incremental and the preservation of the status quo – even if at the rational level they understand the need for more radical innovation. For radical innovation to succeed people need to buy into the argument not only with their heads but also with their hearts – not least as radical innovation is hardly ever supported by sufficient evidence to satisfy the numbers-driven. To counter preference for incrementalism you may want to bring external people with an appetite for great ideas and a passion for innovation into the decision-making process, such as successful entrepreneurs.

Finally, make the assessment and selection fun: give people roulette chips or imaginary bags of money to play with. Rather than another chore this can be an opportunity for senior people to have serious fun. You might end up with everyone desperately wanting to be part of the team looking at (radical) innovation – a better challenge than not being able to attract key senior decision makers to the table.

Implementing radical innovation

As with the selection stage, implementing radical innovation requires measuring with different yard sticks. This is why many organisations use alternative structures such as hothouses, venturing units, or spin-outs. This often seems the only way forward as the culture in the ‘mothership’ is often so hostile that nothing remotely radical would have any chance of survival, and because conditions in which radical innovation thrives are rather different from those that are conducive for incremental innovation and smooth operations. Unless you want to set up a separate business or business unit, your radical innovation will face ‘re-entry‘ into the mainstream at some point, and you need to think about this from the outset. This has to be planned carefully as this is often the point where a great idea is stabbed into the back.

How this can happen is, for example, establishing high level sponsorship with a personal passion for the project and a willingness to actively protect the radical innovation from the organisation’s immune system until is had a chance to develop some deep roots.

You may also want to reconsider your ‘normal’ expectations around timing. If something is truly new you are likely to come up against snags that were impossible to predict at the outset, you might need some skills you had not planned for, and you might go down some blind alleys before reaching the best possible solution; even though the allegedly over 1,000 experiments Edison conducted to arrive at the light bulb as we know it might be a little excessive.

This means that in order to come up with some true innovation you will have to accept failure; experimentation and exploration are fundamental parts of innovation. In the context of innovation I prefer to refer to “learning” rather than “failure”. What is considered a ‘failure’ often turns out to be an essential stepping stones to the next big innovation success. If you view a failure as a learning opportunity it also becomes much less threatening.

Given all the above the big question, are you, sincerely and committedly, willing to do what it takes to create a truly innovative organisation?


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