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Four Ways Leaders Can Support Innovation

By David Witt

In an upcoming presentation that reviews the results of Blanchard’s Innovation Beliefs, Practices, and Realities Survey, Dr. Jay Campbell will share insights into innovation dampeners and accelerators that leaders in organizations need to be aware of.

According to Campbell, the data shows that respondents identify the following factors as being most responsible for slowing or dampening innovation:

  • Workload pressure
  • Poor leadership support for innovation
  • Fear of failure
  • Risk-averse culture

In looking at the some of the ways organizations can support an innovative culture, Campbell points to four leadership focus areas.

Improved Clarity

Addressing clarity is the first order of business, says Campbell. “Leaders need to ask themselves questions such as: What are we really trying to accomplish with our innovation investment? How important is it? What type of innovation are we looking for, and where?

“It’s imperative to start with a set of objectives that are clear and compelling. Of course, all organizations recognize the importance of innovation, but there’s often a very vague plan for actually achieving it. When that happens, innovation can still pop up in disconnected places, but the impact is reduced. 

“Clarity can come in the form of specific challenges related to new offerings, new policies, new markets, or to hoped-for improvements in processes, systems, collaboration methods, etc. It should be clear enough to guide innovative thinking without describing how the new goals will be achieved.”

Campbell explains that while many people think constraints limit innovation, the opposite is true: constraints actually fuel innovation.

“Don’t forget to include critical constraints that make innovation goals challenging. Difficult constraints, such as having a man on the moon in under ten years or building a laptop for less than $50, are what cause people to think outside of normal methods. They are an invitation to breakthroughs.”

Aligned Execution

“It may sound like a platitude, but execution is critical,” says Campbell.

“Even when innovation goals are clear and compelling, an organization must have the right follow-through so that the chain of innovation doesn’t break. That starts with policies and funding to focus innovation efforts in the right places.

“It includes what leaders say and do,” says Campbell. “Are executives and managers supporting innovation, role-modeling experimentative behaviors, and praising risk-taking and learning, or are they sending mixed or negative messages about the risks of trying new things?”

Campbell explains that many organizations will do a good job collecting ideas but a very poor job following through on the ideas and closing the loop.

“What does it tell people when you don’t follow through on ideas? They optimistically participate for a minute and generate some innovative ideas, but then nothing comes of them. As a result, they don’t jump in the next time an innovation opportunity pops up.

“If you are serious about innovation, focus on execution. Have a plan that supports your goals and is smart about the tactics, funding, and communications you’ll focus on. A random experiment here and breakthrough there are unlikely to speed your organization into the future.”

Widescale Involvement

Innovation is often attempted in a way that doesn’t empower people at all levels of the organization, says Campbell.

“In some ways, this isn’t surprising. Walk around the business section of your favorite bookstore. Look through the innovation books and you’ll see texts aimed at executive leaders and product designers but not a lot of content aimed at the bulk of the workforce; people who are actually serving customers, managing call centers, overseeing shipping departments, or running restaurants.”

This focus is also mirrored in many organizations, explains Campbell.

“Executives are often the ones planning innovation projects. The work is then done by ‘special forces’; small groups of elite people handling innovation on the side.

“In our model, we teach that everybody can and should be more innovative. Innovation is easier and more likely to succeed when more people are involved.

“Imagine your organization as a large, heavy object, like a shipping container. Moving it within your market (for example, with change and innovation) is tough, but possible. Now imagine the hundreds or thousands of managers and individuals in your firm are experimenting and innovating toward a clear set of goals. Each micro-innovator acts like a ball bearing under the shipping container. A few don’t help much, but with enough ‘innovation bearings,’ moving the container becomes much easier.

“When it’s done right, you’re infusing the whole culture with innovation.

“Innovation is a natural capability that all human beings have. It’s the ability of our brains to rapidly problem-solve and figure things out that create new solutions. It’s part of our DNA to be innovative and to be creative problem solvers. Why not put all that capability to work across your organization?”

Encouraging Experimentation

“Innovation requires change, and change is often scary,” says Campbell.

“Much is written about psychological safety, and we’ll talk more about it in the research presentation. The headline is that it’s critical for executives and people managers to encourage risk taking and trying new things. It’s also essential these leaders celebrate the results, whether in the form of progress or learning.

“We encourage leaders to talk regularly with their teams about experiments and trying new things. In some of our teams, we add that topic to our agendas and ask, ‘Is anybody trying something new this week?’

“It could be everything from ‘I had a macchiato for the first time’ to ‘I’m looking at this new project management software’ to ‘I skipped a step in a process to see if that would benefit customers.’

“Just start by encouraging people to try new things. Then, if you’re a manager, think about how you can appreciate the learning even when experiments don’t yield positive results.

“Give it a try. I think you’ll find that it’s a good first step moving toward an innovative culture where everyone is encouraged to try new things and make progress.”

About Author

David Witt is a Program Director for Blanchard®. He is an award-winning researcher and host of the companies’ monthly webinar series. David has also authored or coauthored articles in Fast Company, Human Resource Development Review, Chief Learning Officer and US Business Review.

Original from kenblanchard.com

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