Leadership and Innovation

Week before last, three of my “always read” online sources dealt with the topic of Leadership and Innovation:

  1. McKinsey&Company published their 2010 Global Survey results on Innovation and Commercialization. The report states that “…innovation has once again become a priority: in a recent McKinsey Global Survey, 84 percent of executives say innovation is extremely or very important to their companies’ growth strategy.”
  2. In a post titled Is Your Brand Headed For Trouble? 5 Strategic Warning Signs, Mike Brown of Brainzooming wrote “…companies are full of left-brain senior managers who don’t appreciate creative problem solving. They may also start trying to compartmentalize creativity to certain functions or topics. That’s a warning sign, because creativity is broadly vital during challenging and ambiguous situations. Creativity isn’t simply for cooking up creative financing schemes to try and keep a business afloat.” He adds: “A disdain for thinking certainly runs through the other items on the list. When senior executives are telling people to not over-think and just get on with stuff, it’s a clear warning sign. Maybe it is a slow-moving organization stalling innovation efforts which are ready to be implemented. But a “don’t think, do” motto is used frequently as an excuse to not consider an appropriate variety of fact-based strategic options or to avoid exposing flawed strategies when they should be modified or shot down.”
  3. In Pat’s POV, a newsletter published by The Table Group, Patrick Lencioni wrote: “For all the talk about innovation, most executives don’t really like the prospect of their people generating new ways to do things, hoping instead that they’ll simply do what they’re being asked to do in the most enthusiastic, professional way possible. And so it is no surprise when they get pounded for preaching innovation without really valuing it.” In the next paragraph he writes: “What should leaders do? Be more open to new ideas from employees? Probably not. Better yet, they should stop overhyping innovation to the masses and come to the realization that only a limited number of people in any company really needs to be innovative.”

There’s a lack of innovation leadership.

I’ve been doing innovation training, consulting and facilitation since 1987. Many a time I’ve encountered C-level executives who talk the talk of innovation but don’t often walk the walk.

Recently I worked with an organization headquartered in London. A colorful display on a wall near their entrance listed the six values of their company. Innovation was one of those values. I asked the director who was escorting me: “What are you doing to promote innovation?” His response–”To be honest, we haven’t unpacked or embedded innovation just yet.” But it sure looks good on the wall.

So here’s a question: is innovation made part of vision, mission and value statements only because “everyone else is doing it,” and  “it’s the ‘in’ thing to do,” or do leaders actually believe it’s important to their organizations? Unlike my friend Mike Brown, I think leaders realize the value of innovation. I think they genuinely perceive that innovation is necessary for continued success. Yet, as Mike suggests, leaders are afraid of, uncomfortable with, and dubious of innovation. A person can understand and value the speed of air travel and nevertheless have a fear of flying.

This suggestion is unacceptable.

Here’s what leaders should not do to deal with their fear of innovation: Patrick Lencioni’s suggestion that only a limited number of people in an organization needs to be concerned with innovation.

Patrick Lencioni is the author of many fine and best-selling business books. His titles include The Five Temptations of a CEO, The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive, Death by Meeting and The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. Let me make it clear that I am a big fan of Lencioni’s insights for both leaders and team members. What I learned from The Five Dysfunctions of a Team has added great value to my TeamWorkshop The Charge.

In The Five Temptations of a CEO, Lencioni recommends that leaders:

  • choose trust over invulnerability
  • choose conflict over harmony
  • choose clarity over certainty
  • choose accountability over popularity
  • choose results over status.

I maintain that in rapidly changing times such as ours, idea generation cannot and should not be left to a select few. To do so limits the insights and perspectives that an organization needs to navigate its way forward. It is particularly dangerous to leave idea generation in the hands of senior executives because they are too often out-of-touch. Seth Godin posted a blog (also week before last) about senior management. He writes: “The paradox is that by the time you get to be senior, the decisions that matter the most are the ones that would be best made made by people who are junior.”

Lencioni’s suggestion that only a limited number of people in an organization needs to be concerned with innovation is a refutation of his own body of work. To leave innovation to senior leaders and/or a select few is a choice of certainty (we know what we’re doing) over clarity (the wisdom of the crowd). It is a choice of harmony over conflict–ideas from the “masses” are messy, disruptive, chaotic. It is a choice of status (we know best because we are the leaders) over results. We have little innovative results in organizations because leaders have fallen for at least three of the temptations of leadership that Lencioni so brilliantly captured in The Five Temptations of a CEO.

Perhaps its the leaders who can’t handle innovation

When you read the McKinsey report cited above, you discover that very few organizations (only 30% of those surveyed) have well-defined strategic-innovation priorities at the corporate and business unit level. Regarding the difficulty organizations encounter when they attempt to commercialize their innovations, McKinsey states: “A big part of the problem may be the absence of a formal decision-making process: 40 percent of respondents say their companies make commercialization decisions in an ad hoc manner; only 23 percent say such decisions are a regular agenda topic at corporate-leadership meetings.”

Innovation initiatives are failing not because the workers cannot or do not want to be creative, they’re failing because

  • leadership has not built and maintained a cohesive innovation team
  • leadership has not created organizational clarity around innovation
  • leadership has not clearly communicated the need for innovation as a strategic, company-wide effort
  • leadership has not built systems to support and reinforce innovation.

The points above are the essentials of extraordinary executive leadership Patrick Lencioni listed in his book The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive.

The advice that Patrick Lencioni is providing to leadership about innovation in his latest newsletter is misguided. Leaders should follow the advice presented in his earlier books.

What leaders concerned with innovation need to do

If leaders are serious about innovation as a strategic initiative then they should:

  • align their organizations to support innovation.
  • seek and welcome ideas from all members of their organizations as well as from stakeholders outside of their organizations.
  • establish criteria, based on their visions, missions, values, strategies and market research that measure and determine whether innovations should be commercialized or not.

And if business leaders need help in uncorking the creative power of their teams, Brilliance Activator can help. It’s what we do.

Brilliance Activator helps leaders uncork the creative power of their teams to develop products and services that delight customers, increase repeat sales, and improve their profit margins. Receive regular insights and information from Brilliance Activator by subscribing to our free newsletter.
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