Thursday, March 21, 2013

Leadership for Innovation

As an product manager,  an engineer, teacher, & innovation coach - I get a lot of requests for tips on how to build innovation teams. Leaders in every organization are constantly calling on their staff members to be innovative, develop innovative products/services and build a culture of innovation.

Unfortunately, just talking about the need to innovate does not build an innovative culture. A common problem with organizational innovation is that - the leaders assume that innovation is a cultural issue (note the word "innovation culture") and then start off with a series of creative thinking skills training programs.

In one organization, Engineering director mandated all his team members to submit at least 10 innovative ideas in three weeks! After three weeks, there were hundreds of ideas submitted by the team and even after one year of idea submission not a single innovation idea got implemented.

From what I hear & know about in various organization, this story is quite common and repeats itself in different ways every year and this does not surprise me at all.

Many businesses do not innovate not because they lack creative people, it is the working environment and the leadership issues which prevent innovation.  Innovation starts and ends with the top leadership. Innovation in any organization is dependent on how the top leaders perceive innovation and that can motivate or demotivate people to innovate.

It has been observed that startups are generally more innovative - it is because these companies are often founded by creative people - best illustrated today by Facebook, Apple, Intel, HP, Zynga, etc. (I am giving examples of well known companies as it is easier for people to understand. But I urge you to look around and you will also observe the same)

In this article, I have written a few pointers on what leaders should and must do to develop an innovative organization.

1. Fuel Passion

Leaders in innovative organizations bring in passion to innovate. Yogish, CEO of Purpleframe - an elearning startup in Bangalore is always taking about doing things creatively, he never stops talking about creative solutions and innovation. He never accepts mediocre work. His passion for innovation and creativity paid off. In 2012, his company won the Brandon Hall award for the most innovative technology. Brandon Hall award is like the Oscar award for eLearning, and companies all over the world compete for it.

Every great invention, every medical breakthrough, and every advance of humankind began with passion. A passion for change and to making the world a better place. A passion to contribute and make a difference. A passion to discover something new. This passion must also have focus - a strong sense of purpose.  The purpose acts like a lens to focus all the energy, generated by the passion on creating something new.

The top leaders have a bigger purpose: Ratan Tata wanted to Build a $1000 car.  Such a grand objective will then spur local leaders to focus on areas which will lead to the bigger objective - like building the most fuel efficient engine etc.

Leaders must fuel the passion - to accomplish just about anything. Without which,  employees become mere clock-punching automatons.

2. Celebrate Ideas

Celebrating creativity is not only about handing out bonus checks for great ideas  (although that is a good start).  It should also be celebrated with praise (both public and private), career opportunities, and perks.  In short, if you want your team to be creative, you need to establish an environment that rewards them for doing so.  Rewards come in many forms, and often the monetary ones are the least important.

EMC, one of the leading IT technology companies organizes an annual event to collect innovative ideas. Employees are encouraged to submit ideas and all employees are vote on the ideas submitted. The most popular ideas are even rewarded. Top three ideas are incubated by the CTO office for further development & implementation.

Leaders should initiate and promote these ideation sessions and have a regular annual events to celebrate innovative ideas. The best reward for creative idea is to implement the idea. However, note that not all ideas are equal and only the best ideas needs to be implemented.

3. Fail Forward

In most companies, people are so afraid of making mistakes that they don't pursue their dreams. The simply follow the rules and keep their heads down, which drives nothing but mediocrity.

When Thomas Edison was interviewed by a young reporter who boldly asked Mr. Edison if he felt like a failure and if he thought he should just give up by now. Perplexed, Edison replied, "Young man, why would I feel like a failure? And why would I ever give up? I now know definitively over 9,000 ways that an electric light bulb will not work. Success is almost in my grasp." And shortly after that, and over 10,000 attempts, Edison invented the light bulb. 

Every major breakthrough innovation in history came after countless setbacks, mistakes, and "failures." The great innovators and achievers weren't necessarily smarter or inherently more talented - they are simply not afraid of failures and keep trying.  Successful innovators don't let setbacks or failures kill their enthusiasm and have the ability to maintain their curiosity and imagination intact.

Failing forward means taking risks and increasing the rate of experimentation.  Some bets will pay off; some will fail. The key is to fail quickly. The speed of business has increased dramatically and every minute counts. The best businesses try lots of ideas and drop the losers quickly.

Agile innovation is another formalized process and method that allows companies to do small experiments - without impacting the overall business. By trying out ideas in smaller bits, one can minimize risks and costs.

4.  Foster Autonomy

Creative people want to control over their own environment. The trick of successful leadership is to hire creative people, give them a challenging task and get out of the way. Leaders should intervene only to clear some blockers or to give a broad direction.

Michelangelo would not have painted the Sistine Clapel - if Pope Julius II were to be overseeing every bit of work, questioning his brushstroke techniques and demanding weekly reports - for the record.  There is a direct correlation between people who have the ability to call their own shots, and the value of their creative output. An employee who has to run every tiny detail by her boss for approval will quickly become numb to the creative process.

Autonomy and trust goes hand-in-hand. The key is to provide a clear end objective, and let the creative team solve it. Leaders need to trust the team and let them do their best work.  Let them know that they have full trust and support. This will create a highly motivated and more creative team.

5. Have Courage & Encourage others to be courageous

Innovation needs courage to face the possibility of failures. It starts with the top leaders. Leaders must show their courage to support innovative projects and allow individuals the freedom to take creative risks without that overwhelming sense of fear or judgment.

Leaders should encourage their employees to  say what they think, even if it is controversial. Leaders make tough decisions without agonizing excessively. Leaders take smart risks which is needed for innovation.

6. Be Small, agile and Innovative.

Smaller companies tend to be more innovative and nimble. They have a stronger sense of urgency and are not afraid to embrace change.  In contrast, larger organizations often exist to protect previous ideas rather than to create new ones.

The leaders who believe that being nimble, hungry, and entrepreneurial have the right ingredients for business success.  In recent times, large technology companies have been reorganizing themselves into smaller business units, so that each business unit stays small, innovative and nimble.

Agile innovation rests on the principle that smaller teams working in parallel will be faster to innovate and the smaller size helps to deal with failures. Agile innovation teams are nibble and are faster to embrace change.

Closing Thoughts 

Innovation in organizations starts with the leadership. Leaders need not be hands on innovators - but must be active facilitators.

Innovation requires active leadership, courage to trust others and let them experiment and the ability to manage failures. It is the responsibility of leaders to ensure that failures do not become innovation blockers. Instead leaders can convert these failures into stepping stones for future success.

The key leadership skill for innovation is not about developing creative skills, but to create a sustainable environment for innovation. To do this, leaders must develop organizational abilities to create and sustain a culture of Innovation.

Also See:

Why Small Companies are more Innovative?
Agile Innovation

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