Leadership and innovation

Leadership and innovation
Creating a culture of innovation through leadership means listening to other people's ideas, too.
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Creating a culture of innovation

The chances are that if you are in the habit of coming up with innovative ideas, you are accustomed to leading people through unfamiliar territory. Being the ideas person can make you a leader by default. But leadership is not just a label others stick on you, it is a vital skillset for the successful innovator. Crucially, it means listening to other people’s ideas at least as much as they listen to yours.

It is through leadership, above everything, that you will create and maintain a culture of innovation within your organisation.

Stephen Drain, director of the AUT Centre for Innovative Leadership, warns of complacency on this. “Not all innovators are leaders, and not all leaders are innovators.”

If you read our last innovation guide, Cash for Ideas, you should have got the message that commercialising ideas is always a team sport. This is especially true if you work in a large organisation. Here, successful leadership is about creating and maintaining a world-beating team that comes up with fresh ideas regularly.

“Not all innovators are leaders and not all leaders are innovators”

Stephen Drain

AUT centre for innovative leadership

Hamish Campbell, MSI's manager of investment services, says: “I visited the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston recently and one thing really stuck with me: if you have the choice of backing the A-grade idea with the B-grade team or the B idea with the A team, you back the A team every time. Ideas are a dime a dozen. The best idea in the world without a great team around it is next to worthless. Investing in innovation is about investing in people.”

Your staff will be looking to the top dogs to see how they sniff each other, and how they behave if there’s a bone of contention. If you slam your office door and summon folks inside like a headmaster, expect your staff to act like schoolchildren the moment you turn your back.

The corrosive effects of this kind of atmosphere will stifle progress and cost you a fortune. And even if you have the money, chucking people a bonus is no substitute for giving them meaning and excitement as a part of their everyday working lives. Numerous studies have shown that once people have enough cash to pay the bills, non-monetary considerations become much more important in keeping them motivated.

Ask yourself these questions:

• What are you doing yourself that is not giving you the space to think creatively?
• Are you doing that to the people you are leading?
• Are you putting things onto them that they can’t manage?
• Are you hanging onto things that you should be giving to other people to deal with?
• The higher up you get in leadership the more people notice and the less they tell you. How much are you really talking to them?

You may have become accustomed to doing most of the work yourself. AUT’s approach is to build your leadership on your strengths so you don’t end up a jack of all trades and master of none.

“It’s really important in leadership to know what you can and can’t do. You need to bring people in to cover your blind spots, and to watch you so they can learn,” says Drain.

The challenge is to let aspects of that work go and let others develop with their individual talents, while at the same time maintaining the all-important overview and vision.

You can get it badly wrong if you either fail to let go of things, or if you abandon effective management and leadership by going back to the knitting of your own specialism. If you feel you are not up to this challenge you may also find yourself reverting to micromanagement and an overemphasis on deadlines and detail.

As Bruce Lee said: “Concentrate on the finger pointing and you will miss all the heavenly glory.”

Creative spaces

How many great ideas have suffocated in unread notebooks and files in your office?

Why do our children’s day-care centres look heaps more creative than where we spend most of our time?

Why do we expect people to come up with exciting products for vibrant living while in solitary confinement surrounded by machines?

It’s time to take ‘open plan’ literally: do all your planning in the open, where everyone can get involved. Here are some interior design tips to get your ideas out in the open where they can grow.

• Get away from the norm: Newsflash—a lot of creative people do not just sit at a grey plastic desk gawping at a screen. Have portable seating and whiteboards so that breakout teams can create an environment that suits their needs. Think about using outside spaces too.
• Personal space: As long as it doesn’t create a health and safety hazard, encourage people to decorate their desks any which way they like. It’s free to you, it’s fun, and it will improve the team’s creativity.
• Get it up on the wall: Idea banks—pictures, models, flow charts—should all go up on a wall wherever possible, and staff should be encouraged to spend some time checking them out to stay in contact with other projects. They will be inspired and feel able to contribute.

Components of the innovation culture

Disclosure, openness and authenticity

Have the courage to be yourself, says Drain. “When somebody reveals something about themselves that is slightly surprising and deep, you start to trust them. A good authentic leader, if you meet them at them movies or when you are out at a social event, you won’t find them particularly different than the way they are at work.”

Update: greed ain’t good

Just like Dr Evil in the Austin Powers movies, if your idea of innovation is new and imaginative ways to kill people and destroy the world, then you might struggle for quality staff.

A 2006 study by the LRN consultancy found:

• 94 percent of employees said it was ‘critical’ or ‘important’ that the company they work for is ethical

• 82 percent said they would prefer to be paid less and work for a company with ethical business practices than receive higher pay at a company with questionable ethics

• one in three employed Americans have left a job for ethical reasons

Tolerance for risk and uncertainty

Not knowing exactly what you want provides the space for your team to innovate and create. Tom Peters put it this way: “Reward spectacular failure. Punish mediocre success.”


“If your team are happy and you are happy,” says Drain, “you are going to achieve a lot more.”

Trust is the magic ingredient that underpins all of these. According to the Deloitte 2010 Ethics & Workplace Survey, 46 percent of workers say a lack of transparent leadership communication will drive them to seek new employment opportunities.

If you find yourself snooping on your team’s email or checking when they clock in and out, you are either terminally paranoid, have hired the wrong people, or are in the wrong job.

Say goodbye to Mr Know-It-All

Business hierarchy used to be all about information control. The boss knew stuff the shop-floor folks didn’t and would decide how much of this to pass on to their underlings. Meanwhile, the shop-floor folks knew what was really going on where the rubber hit the road. The success of your structure used to be measured by how well the information flowed up and down.

Well, you can forget about all that. Information technology means information is now flowing all over the place. There are probably plenty of people inside your organisation, not to mention the odd one outside, who know as much as you do about what you do.

Today, the job of a leader is not to attempt to control information: that horse has bolted. Your job is to lead a conversation with your people that identifies what information is really relevant and important, and how you should move on it.

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