No motivated leader is content to sit back and let things happen. They know the names of the innovation icons: Jobs, Bell, Edison, Curie, da Vinci, Archimedes. A steady stream of creations would be terrific, but a stream of ideas would also be welcome. Those who teach and write about business innovation offer some goals that a company, its leaders and its employees should expect to accomplish to boost innovation, or to start it.
The first aspect to confront is the attitude and the behavior of top management toward the innovation process. Does the CEO rely on his or her own ideas for change? Does he or she consider the staff unable to generate bold new ideas? Or is he or she someone who eagerly encourages others to be creative?
Jeffrey Baumgartner, author of The Way of the Innovation Master, says creative genius “is less important in an innovative leader than is the ability to form a vision around an idea or set of ideas.”
Two talents are critical to success here: “The innovative leader needs a powerful imagination and excellent communications skills. He or she also needs to have confidence in the team and their ability to work together to achieve that dream. The innovative leader focuses on the big picture and works with creative thinkers who can add to that vision and make it greater.
“Perhaps most important, the innovative leader needs to be able to communicate his or her vision and generate enthusiasm for it. Their team needs to be able to see the vision themselves and be willing to invest their own time and resources into making it happen. Innovative leaders know that leadership by demand is far less effective at encouraging creativity and innovation than is leadership through motivation and inspiration.”
Innovation leadership is not limited to the corner office. Managers at any and every level of the company can steer the process if they are open to it and if their team members know that the opportunity exists to innovate. No doubt the mid-level innovator has a boss with the same mindset. Otherwise, he’d probably be somewhere else exercising his creativity – and maybe with his old team members.
Seda Röder, managing partner at The Mindshift, a management and innovation consulting firm, says, “Although innovation is on top of almost every strategic agenda to secure competitive advantage, most organizations still struggle in creating an environment to foster a mindset of systematic innovation. Not because they’re not willing, but because they haven’t understood the thumb rule: It is never the products nor the business models that are innovative, but people’s minds behind them. At its core, an innovation is an application of human creativity. Thus, for the leaders of a disruptive world it is crucial to understand and invest in creativity.”
Such leaders, she states, must cultivate certain personal competencies, which, if practiced, will lead to positive behavioral changes:
- Start with yourself. “Spend at least 70% of your time with creative thinking and the rest on administration.” Your teams will follow your lead.
- Make room for radical ideas and innovation. Most pursue incremental innovation, which Röder calls “mere betterment of existing products and models.” Instead, she urges, “Force yourself to be open to radical ideas, and allow those to be tested and validated.”
- Manage Less. “Trust in your observations and in the abilities of your people. Demand creativity from these teams but don’t micro-manage or interfere with their creative processes. The real responsibility of a true leader is to inspire and to motivate by precise and humane communication of the common vision, values and objectives that resonate with the people.”
- Be a mentor and coach. Spend time with the people and ask questions. “This kind of leadership practice will have two immediate positive outcomes: People will progress faster when they concentrate on what they can do rather than what they cannot, and you will be able to increase motivation and engagement in no time.”
- Investing time. Doing so builds solid relationships and a healthy organization. “When you sincerely care for your people and invest time in their growth you will be making a huge step in the direction of changing the workplace culture toward resilience, creativity, innovation, openness and solution-focused thinking.”
- Someone from the outside. “Maybe they’ve worked in another company or industry, maybe they’ve got a background in big companies or start-ups as long as it’s different from what you do now – someone who knows innovation best practices and has a reason to constantly ask why things are done a certain way.”
- Someone from the inside who is a challenger. “This person is pretty easily recognizable in an organization, because they’ve been bothering people at every level to change things for quite some time. They ask questions and finish projects, but they always try to do things a different way despite their considerable institutional knowledge.”
- Someone from the inside with the social capital to advocate for both. “This person is a well-respected leader: they have great relationships, they are able to build allies and foster connections between people, and they will help remove the roadblocks that are in front of the other two.”
A decade ago, Harvard Business School’s Linda Hill promoted a management practice called “leading from behind,” for which she has received wide recognition. The phrase was inspired by Nelson Mandela, she says, who described a shepherd’s duty in his autobiography: “He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.”
“Leading from behind,” says Hill, “doesn’t mean abrogating your leadership responsibilities. After all, the shepherd makes sure that the flock stays together. He uses his staff to nudge and prod if the flock strays too far off course or into danger. For leaders, it’s a matter of harnessing people’s collective genius.”
The Tao Te Ching, written 2,500 years ago in China, is a slim volume of guidance for right living that is followed and practiced by millions today. The author, Lao Tzu, wrote, “When the Master governs, people are hardly aware that he exists. When the work is done, the people say ‘Amazing: We did it, all by ourselves!’”
The author is president of Jack Kenny Media, a communications firm specializing in the packaging industry, and is the former editor of L&NW magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.