Business leaders know and believe that innovation is the secret sauce for company growth. It inspires product development, facilitates strong employee satisfaction, drives efficiencies and provides a sound culture making it desirable for one to work and invest their time and talent. Yet, the greatest impediment to innovation is the organizational leader and the resulting culture. No-one would intentionally thwart other’s contributions, but most organizational leaders unknowingly extinguish the flames of creativity through amateur managerial practices.
Imagine telling an artist what she must paint, and exactly how it should be done. What if, when putting paint on her brush, she’s directed on how to make each stroke and then corrected when she paints in a style or direction that’s unconventional? What’s the likelihood that the end product will be a true masterpiece of great value? Too many cooks in the kitchen. One may be able to sell such a picture in the marketplace, but it’s not likely it will ever make it to the Louvre. For an artist to truly innovate, she must be free to use her own imagination, while connecting the thoughts and images in her mind, and in her surroundings, to the brush that’s in her hand.
It’s true that effective leadership requires a level of control, but there are wholesome and unwholesome ways to govern—ones that inspire and promote individual contribution and creativity, and others that strike a deadly blow to the heart of innovation. Consider the following principles to create a sanctuary for innovation in the workplace:
The first and most important principle is to stop doing other’s thinking for them. It’s impossible to cultivate innovation under the direction of a micromanager. Micromanagement is a corporate evil that robs others of originality and creativity, and ultimately truncates managerial leverage. From a human incentive standpoint, those who are denied the opportunity to use their own faculties to create and innovate will lose heart, bringing employee engagement to a grinding halt. People will retreat to vicious compliance—a condition where one turns off his or her own judgment and does exactly what the boss says, even though there are known negative consequences. The best source of good judgment in decision-making usually comes from those who are closest to the work. In contrast, professional managers lead with discovery-based questions rather than simply telling people what to do. They maintain control by assigning discreet levels of freedom.
Second, innovation has to be mined out of staff members which can only occur in a safe environment. Professional managerial leaders provide laboratories for their people to experiment and refine their thinking. They will look at mistakes as opportunities for learning rather than sins to avoid. New ideas must be treated with deliberate and intense curiosity rather than viewing them as anomalies to current conventions or norms. Yet, this way of “seeing” is very different than the ordinary, corporate way of life. Absent this foundational view, innovation is unlikely, leaving us to some form of process improvement that helps us to get better, but never allows us to be great.
Professional principles and techniques are rarely intuitive in nature, even though they make sense in the mind. Converting beliefs to actual behaviors is the hallmark of a true professional, yet few make this leap. Here’s how you can tell, at a quick glance, if your organization is poised for innovation.
Are your people happy, and do they love working at your firm?
Are new ideas welcomed and celebrated, even if they go against conventional norms?
Do you celebrate advances in innovations and truly incentivize people to take risks?
Is curiosity (the opposite of being judgmental) an operating, cultural value?
When things go wrong, do you work to solve problems or resort to finding culprits?
Coaching questions: How would you rate yourself at promoting innovation? What steps can you take to improve, maximizing human incentives, to foster needed creativity? Write your answers in your journal.