Originally posted on HQ Asia.
Few business issues concern organisations more than innovation and creativity. Organisations which fail to innovate effectively eventually wither and fade. While many leaders espouse a strong innovation agenda, it’s common to find widespread dissatisfaction with the pace of progress.
Surveys of CEO suggest that many leaders believe human capital is one of the biggest barriers organisations have – in particular, a lack of talent and engagement to drive innovation forward in a purposeful way. The implicit assumption is that more creativity and effort is needed from employees to make things happen.
But, as some have pointed out, organisations often have little trouble generating novel ideas and initiatives. Indeed, many find that they end up with too many suggestions, leaving resources stretched thin or employees feeling ignored when their ideas are left on the side-lines. Over time, enthusiasm wains as leaders prioritise shorter term projects with more reliable results.
So, as a great deal of research shows, successful innovation is as much about having the right process and the right culture as it is about having the right talent and capability. And because culture and process are determined by how leaders make decisions and incentivise behaviour, leadership is critical determinant of innovation success. Indeed, as other have noted, leadership isn’t a role but rather a process by which a leader transforms a group of talented individuals into a coordinated collective in service of the organisations agenda.
How can leaders get better innovation outcomes for their organisations? Here are four barriers that are often getting in the way:
1. Collaboration. One of the greatest paradoxes of innovation is that, sometimes, the more competent a person is, the harder it can be. The reason for this is that, as research shows, people with stronger technical knowledge are less likely to experiment and explore new ways of working. They are also less likely to collaborate because competent people need less help from others. Couple these factors with a very hierarchical culture and/or the narrow focus that many performance management systems have on individual contributions and the result is often a large number of isolated experts. This is key because a growing body of work demonstrates how important collaboration is for innovation to flourish – helping to move ideas from development to execution. Research into social networks shows that technical experts become better at solving complex problems when they have larger networks of professionals to discuss them with. The benefits for collaborative problem solving have even been found when it’s companies that are involved rather than people. In recent years, companies in different industries have been working together to create innovation ecosystems solve some of the world’s most pressing issues. This highlights how important it is to facilitate successful collaboration, especially for technically skilled workers, by building the right kind of environment and incentives.
2. Visionary Goals. As the founder of Microsoft, Bill Gates, once said, “…we always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years, but underestimate what will happen in the next ten.” This short-term bias is one of the biggest challenges many leaders find themselves facing when it comes to innovation. The sense of urgency generated by the feeling of falling behind causes many technically competent leaders to fall back on tried and tested methods for delivering results – prioritising a larger number of short term incremental gains over longer term strategic projects. But as we’ve seen in recent years, the big innovations are often driven a visionary leader with big ideas for the future as well as the discipline and confidence to see them through. So, while technically competent leadership is important for innovation, clarity of vision and an eye for opportunity is essential. Indeed, the rise in interest in building entrepreneurial leadership at many levels of organisations reflects this; and, while not everyone can or should be an entrepreneur (or intrepreneur), having some leaders within the corporate environment with those talents is becoming increasingly valuable.
3. Managing Engagement. As I’ve noted elsewhere, innovation often requires a restlessness and dissatisfaction with the status quo to drive people forward in a purposeful way. It’s common for organisations to struggle to find a balance in the way they communicate a burning platform for innovation and change while maintaining a short term positive outlook. Many organisations spend a great deal of time maintaining or boosting employee engagement and are reluctant to communicate messages that might run counter to those efforts. However, the danger for leaders is that an engaged workforce becomes complacent or arrogant if it isn’t self-critical enough. Indeed, those who question themselves more often tend be more motivated to achieve their goals. So, the objective for leaders is to ensure that employees understand how important innovation and change is to the survival of the business while engaging them with a compelling and meaningful vision.
4. Handling anxiety. While innovation is a glamourous topic that organisations enjoy being associated with there’s very little doubt that it’s risky businesses. Inherent in the definition of innovation is idea that something will happen that has never happened before. For many this is an exciting prospect – people generally enjoy the opportunity to create something new and contribute to growth. While it’s important to harness that energy, it also has the potential to overwhelm employees and to cause them to lose focus. As anxiety about the need to innovate grows and the pressure to deliver mounts, research shows that people will narrow their attention causing them to generate fewer ideas and become less productive. A fear of failure often compounds this issue with people quickly retreating to safe and reliable ways of working. Leaders play key role in managing this type of anxiety and the emergence of emotional intelligence as an important leadership construct reflects this. Leaders who are able to remain calm under pressure, build trust and stay the course for the long term help their people adapt and stay optimistic.
Leaders are critical for driving innovation in organisations but getting the right balance of vision, execution, drive and empathy is vital. The most effective organisation are able to manage the tensions created by the competing priorities that innovation often brings and having the right leadership culture is essential for doing that in a scalable way.