In another article, I outlined the corporate perspective of innovation and leadership through published survey results. From these surveys, it is clear that innovation is important to top-management and the leadership team. I have also outlined my view as to what leadership is.
General Requirements – Top Management
Senior managers do not generally actively encourage innovative behaviour. At top-management level, leadership should lead and undertake the following:
· Define the kind of innovation that drives growth and helps meet strategic objectives;
· Add innovation to the formal agenda at regular leadership meetings;
· Set performance metrics and targets for innovation.
Reviewing this list, you would be right in thinking that it is not rocket science! After all, any of these could be applied to strategy, with appropriate word changes. So what truly defines a leader who champions innovation? This champion is not necessarily top management. As can be seen from the list, top management can frame how and where the organisation is going, but other than in exceptional circumstances, top management will not be the innovative leader.
The Leader of Innovation (Leading)
I believe that such a leader needs to be able to, or have, the following:
· To have a vision for change. Without guidance from the leader, team members will not know where they should direct their innovation efforts. In my opinion, this is fundamental.
· Communicate the innovation message. It is critical that actions back up the words. So, more than merely communication, it needs to be a statement of commitment and intent. It needs to be supported through a real demonstrable plan of action which is promoted throughout the organisation. This is the second most important aspect. If, as leader, you do not demonstrate your strongest commitment to innovation, other members of the organisation will not believe in it.
· Set goals for innovation. This is tied in with needing a vision for change. Both of these manage where efforts are directed. The old cliché of what gets measured, gets done is accurate here. So select your goals, and how they are measured carefully.
· Set expectations. Rather than set easy targets, set stretch targets. The latter will ensure that team members will look for more radical solutions, rather than follow the herd.
· Throw down a challenge. This is a successful way of stimulating people’s efforts and galvanising action. To work, such a challenge just be just that.
· Overcome the fear of change. People are naturally apprehensive about change. We all fear the unknown. We are all reluctant to take risks, particularly if we are penalised for doing so. We all question the need to reinvent the wheel. Success can often work against innovation! So dealing with a fear of change is a key objective. Messages are critical – ‘let’s not be complacent’, ‘we are doing well, but we need to do better’, ‘if we don’t find new ways to reach and delight our customers, then others will do it for us’, ‘there is a risk in innovating, but there is a bigger risk in standing still’, etc. These leaders will not only push such messages, but will also listen and deal with the concerns of their people.
· Encourage dissent, but get rid of the cynics. Dissent can open up new ideas, as long as it is constructive dissent. Tom Peters: “Innovation comes from angry and driven people”. Balance this encouragement of dissent with getting rid of the cynics. Cynics can be toxic to the innovation process. Such negative energy can undermine the energy and commitment and passion of the whole team.
· Break down internal barriers. Get rid of the silo mentality which often pervades larger organisations. Office politics is also reduced.
· Be passionate. People will not follow an unenthusiastic leader!
So what more qualities are there for different activities of the innovative leader?
The Leader of Innovation (Understanding the Problem)
The leader will be open to using different techniques to understand the problem. The leader will need to undertake the following with their team:
· Analysing and diagnosing the current situation. The vision outlines where the organisation is going. But the organisation needs to know where it is today. An innovation audit can assist the business to understand what is working well, what opportunities there are to do better and help to identify the barriers to innovation.
· Analyse problems. Before taking action, it is necessary for the leader to thoroughly understand and analyse issues and problems. Various techniques can be used, including ‘why, why, why?’ (see below), and ‘six serving men’, also outlined below.
· Why, why, why? This method is based on children who keep asking why when questions are answered. Adopting as many ‘whys’ can really drill down to the root of the problem being addressed.
· Six serving men. This technique is based on Rudyard Kipling’s poem:
· “I keep six honest serving men, they taught me all I knew’
· Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.”
· Both positive and negative questions can be posed.
· Redefine the problem. This technique can generate fresh thinking and requires the problem or issue to be restated using none of the original words.
· What business are we in? This is a crucial question to answer if the organisation is to fully understand its competitive position. For example, airlines do not sell flights. They sell a quick method of getting from one city to another. Railways also sell a method of getting from one city to another – so are airlines and railway companies in the same business? Certainly within the same continent they do, they vary only over the time taken to achieve the objective and cost.
The Leader of Innovation (Ideas)
There are a number of idea generating methods around, and the innovative leader will need to bring their skills to bear to adopt those which are most appropriate for the task in hand. Some examples of different methods have been set out in another article.
I hope that this article gives you some idea as to what innovation leadership is.
Innovation for Growth is a UK business consultancy firm which specialises in: innovation audits and advice; strategy services; business plans and planning; and business research.