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Why leaders aren't stimulating innovation

Ross Maher

Ross Maher is the director of Build21c, an innovation project planning and research company that helps companies innovate. His specialities include project definition and set up, and he believes the best innovation occurs through a conversation with customers, suppliers and other stakeholders. Learn more at www.build21c.com.au

When I ask people how they define innovation, the most common definition I get – almost word for word – is “doing things differently”. And it really is that simple. So if you are a senior executive or leader that is disappointed with your ability to stimulate innovation ask yourself one question: “do I let people do things differently?”

I’m going to be brutally honest and say that you don’t. For the last 100 or so years business has evolved – using command and control – to eliminate variation. Nearly all businesses (not just manufacturers) are obsessed with the principle of ‘lean’ and Six Sigma which attempt to “improve the quality of process outputs by identifying and removing the causes of defects (errors) and minimizing variability in manufacturing and business processes.”

Unfortunately, if your business is focused on removing defects and variability, it can’t be focused on generating new ideas and creating value by commercialising them. These are two different skill sets: rational to remove variation and emotional to be creative. It’s like trying to pat your head and rub your stomach at the same time: yes it might be possible, but it requires incredible concentration, and no one in your organisation has time for that much concentration anyway.

Other reasons why leaders can’t stimulate is innovation is that they set their organisation’s up to work against each other. You might have given the new product development team freedom to be creative and do things differently, but you expect them to win support for their ideas from the finance, production and sales teams that you have set up to eliminate variation and risk: but how can you bring a new product to the market without variation and risk?

The answer is to bring something to market that is a tweak on the existing product or service. Yes, this will keep the sales ticking over for a while, but in the global economy, someone who can do it dramatically cheaper will eventually overrun you.

Another reason leaders fail to stimulate innovation is that they have no passion. Ask yourself, right now, “what am I passionate about?” Is the answer directly related to the company or group you are trying to lead? If the answer is no, what chance do you have to tap into the emotional side of your teams that is required to create innovation? Innovation requires creativity and that is an emotional skill. While business leadership in the 20th Century was about creating an automated machine, in the 21st Century it is about facilitating and embracing disruption; letting people do things differently. It’s also about passion: a leader that is passionate about the business in a meaningful way will inspire their people to go above and beyond, and that is where real value lies. Value for the customer, value for the shareholders, and equally importantly, value for the employees.

But one last thought on this: there is no one way to be a leader. Steve Jobs and Richard Branson are arguably two of the most significant business leaders of the modern era, yet their leadership styles are fundamentally different; what they had in common is that they understood themselves and surrounded themselves with people that were driven in the same way. To learn more about this, check out the blog “Branson, Jobs, Innovation & People

Tags: leadership, innovation

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