Leadership Mindsets to Foster Innovation

When lively conversations abound on the subject of innovation, invariably, the matter of culture emerges. Does the organization have a suitable culture to nourish innovation? If not, why not? Often, management is held up as a scapegoat for the lack of innovation. Karl Ronn recently said, “Companies that think they have an innovation problem don’t have an innovation problem. They have a leadership problem.”

Scott Anthony, a regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review blog and managing partner of Innosight, took note of Ronn’s recent comment. Anthony  had featured Ronn in The Little Black Book of Innovation, and considers him to be “thoughtful, widely read, a seasoned practitioner, and a great communicator.” Anthony wrote of him in a recent HBR blog post:

Ronn’s basic idea was that four decades of academic research and two decades of conscious implementation of that work have provided robust, actionable answers to many pressing innovation questions. Practitioners have robust tools to discover opportunities to innovate, design, and execute experiments to address key strategic uncertainty; to create underlying systems to enable innovation in their organization; and to manage the tension between operating today’s business and creating tomorrow’s businesses. Large companies like IBM, Syngenta, Procter & Gamble, 3M, and Unilever show that innovation can be a repeatable discipline. Emerging upstarts like Google and Amazon.com show how innovation can be embedded into an organization’s culture from day one.

Pixar innovationIn Building a Growth Factory, David Duncan and Anthony suggested why many others have not been successful: too many companies use point solutions to address a systematic challenge. They may offer an idea challenge, ideation session, growth group, corporate venturing arm or incentives for innovation…

(writes Anthony,) “None of these is bad, but point solutions don’t solve system-level problems. Duncan and I suggest working on four systems — a growth blueprint, production systems, governance and controls, and leadership, talent, and culture. It isn’t easy to do all of that, but it is what is required to really make innovation work at scale.” (continuing:)

Ronn agrees, but notes that the responsibility for such systemic work ultimately rests with a company’s leadership team. And it’s absolutely necessary. Research by Clayton Christensen, Rita McGrath, Richard D’aveni, and Richard Foster make very clear that we are in a new era where competitive advantage is a transitory notion. (McGrath’s forthcoming book is provocatively titled The End of Competitive Advantage.) Any executive that doesn’t make innovation a strategic priority, ensure there is ample investment in it, and approach the problem strategically is committing corporate malfeasance.

Further, leaders can’t just set the context and hope that innovation happens. Innovation is enough of an unnatural act in most companies (which were built to scale yesterday’s business model, not discover tomorrow’s) that it requires the day-by-day attention of the company’s top leadership team or it simply won’t stick.

The leadership challenge facing executives today is to balance today’s needs versus tomorrow’s. In the current environment, productivity and risk management are priorities. In the longer run, being able to anticipate market needs and adjust one’s go-to-market strategy are critical. Leaders must now be good at both to create and sustain competitive advantage. 

Anthony acknowledges that, to justify why innovation is a struggle, leaders mention factors such as “short-term pressures from investors, talent deficiencies, the challenge of implementing innovation-friendly rewards structures, the still fuzzy nature of innovation, and, in candid moments, their own discomfort with the different mental frames required to lead innovation.”

Most importantly, the paradigm shift needs to occur whereby the goal moves from being most innovative among a peer group of companies to being cutting edge like some of the upstart organizations known for redefining the playing field. 

Foster Intrapreneurial Activity

Today I had the opportunity to attend an Innovation Symposium culminating a 125 year anniversary celebration at North Carolina State University. While NC State is the arch rival of my alma mater, UNC, it is a great university located in my hometown.  One of the recurring themes today as presidents of other land grant universities took their position at the  podium was how many schools have done a good job of incorporating the business community into campus life–particularly as it relates to launching novel startups with a research basis made possible by the work of faculty and students. An outgrowth of that theme was the concept that more corporate citizens needed to catch the entrepeneurial spirit and turn it into intrapreneurial initiatives.

When I did an internet search for examples of universities partnering with businesses in intrapreneurship, one of the results was a story from Louisville, Kentucky. Beth Avey, the Executive Director of the Kentucky Indiana Exchange said in a blog post on their website, “Over the years I’ve often heard people talk about how the corporate culture stymies creativity and new ideas, and how companies lose their most talented people in pursuit of more innovative opportunities. Well, in our region there are employers doing just the opposite.”

Health intrapreneurshipWhat a great idea! Companies who are tuned into the need of workers to have their ideas heard and implemented–regardless of whether the workers hold a management or traditional R&D role. Would that all companies embraced the challenge to foster intrapreneurial activity! Avey goes on to illustrate:

The Kentucky Indiana Exchange (Kix) has long sought to showcase the great entrepreneurial spirit of our region, but what about the “intrapreneurial” spirit of our employers? Maybe it’s a concept that some of you are aware of, but it was unknown to me until a recent visit to Signature HealthCARE as a member of the 2013 class of Leadership Louisville.

When we arrived for our monthly gathering, we were given the opportunity to select one of several regional employers, and I chose Signature. I had heard so much about the company — the decision its leaders made to move the headquarters to the region; the work they were doing with the University of Louisville to foster innovation and business start-ups in the long-term care industry; and about their leader, CEO Joe Steier, a Louisville native who guided the company’s move to Kentucky.

We spent much of the morning with our host Joe Barimo, the VP of Corporate Learning. His passion for the company was quite apparent. We then visited with what seemed to be the entire senior leadership team, including Joe Steier. We had a terrific exchange, learning about the company, their move to Louisville and Signature’s three organizational pillars – Learning, Spirituality and Intrapreneurship. Learning and Spirituality were certainly two concepts with which I was familiar, but not “Intrapreneurship.”

It’s the idea of acting like an entrepreneur within a larger organization where employees are expected to be innovative, to take risk and pursue the development of innovative products or services within the company. This style of management allows the employees to feel as if they’re part of something bigger, as well as something they have a stake in. Traits like conviction, zeal and insight are encouraged. As a result, employees become more likely to try the kinds of approaches they might take if they were running their own business. The end result can be a breakthrough technology or a new and profitable product line.

What a great lesson in visionary leadership. How can it be applied to your organization? Your alma mater? Your business community? 

 

Creative – or Not? Characteristics to Consider

Innovation and intrapreneurship rely on creativity. How do you know whether you or others in your organization are creative? We’re not talking only about artists when the term “creative” is used. By examining behavior and thoughts, it is possible to get a feel for what a broad audience my agree constitutes creative talent. Jeffrey Baumgartnerauthor of the book, The Way of the Innovation Master, believes that two behavio(u)rs are predictive of creativity:

Behaviour One: Make More Use of Their Mental Raw Material

It seems that when highly creative people are trying to solve a problem or achieve a goal, particularly when the goal is related to their area of creative strength, they use much more of their brains than do ordinary people or, indeed, even themselves when not focused on a creative task. If the average person is asked to draw a picture of a cat, she will most likely think about the physical appearance of a cat and replicate it as best she can with pen and paper. The creative artist, on the other hand, will think in much more depth. She’ll think not only about the cat, but the placement of the cat; what the cat is doing; the lighting; the kind of lines to use and much more. She may decide to humanize the cat and give it emotions. Perhaps she’ll decide to draw a sexy cat with a human body wearing an evening gown. Maybe she’ll simply draw a blur representing a cat in motion.

By using much more of her brain to achieve her goal, the highly creative person in effect provides herself with more raw material from which to construct ideas than the average person. The average person thinks only about drawings of cats and the basic characteristics of cats. This limits the level of creativity she can achieve. The highly creative person thinks about much more — all the while retaining some connection to cats. It is not surprising that, with so much raw material, she is able to be more creative in the realization of her ideas.

They Think Before They Act
It takes time to run through all that raw material in the brain. This is why creative people tend to think before they act. The play with the issue in their minds for a time, looking at a range of possibilities before choosing a direction. I see this when I work with creative people. When you give an average person a creative challenge, she tends immediately to try and come up with ideas. But because her mind is too focused on the issues of the challenge, her ideas are limited in scope as well. 

Incidentally, the highly creative person does not focus on her left brain or right brain for a simple reason: it’s a myth (Christian Jarrett (June 2012) “Why the Left-Brain Right-Brain Myth Will Probably Never Die”; Psychology Today.) Creative people use a lot of their brains, not one hemisphere or the other!

Curiosity Is Creative Play
Rather than simply collect information, their brains play with it. One person might see a horse standing in a field and think it is a magnificent looking animal. Another, more curiously creative person, might wonder what the horse thinks about all day in the field. She might wonder how the horse can cope for long hours of inactivity without a book to read. 

Spontaneous Ideas
For instance, it is by asking what use could be made of not very sticky glue that some people discovered Post-Its. Pablo Picasso wondered how he could depict three dimensional reality, as viewed from different perspectives, on a two dimensional canvas and came up with cubism.

Creative mind
Behaviour Two: Less Intellectual Regulation

The dorsolateral prefrontal region of the brain is responsible for, among other things, intellectual regulation (Simon Ross (2008) “Dorsolateral prefrontal cortex”; Psychlopedia). It includes the brain’s censorship bureau; the bit of the brain that prevents us from saying or doing inappropriate things. It seems that in highly creative people, this part of the brain becomes much less active than normal during the period of creation. It is not that highly creative people are not afraid of ridicule or criticism (indeed, many artists are highly sensitive). Rather, it never occurs to them that others might ridicule their ideas.

Creative People Are Not as Rebellious as You Think
Instead, they follow their own rules or systems for evaluating ideas and deciding whether to move forward with those ideas. These rule systems are often logical, at least to the creative thinker. An artist, for example, will not make a name for herself by studiously copying current trends. Rather, she will become famous by being unique. 

Creative People Are Logical
That logic may be based in part on emotions and feelings — especially in some artists. If anything, by not feeling compelled to fit the demands of popular culture, the creative artist needs to be even more logical than the average person who assumes that if everyone wears and buys a particular style jacket, then it is safe to buy and wear such a jacket.

Creative People Tend to Be Less Honest
Research by Francesca Gino and Dan Ariely (Francesca Gino, Dan Ariely (2011) “The Dark Side of Creativity: Original Thinkers Can be More Dishonest”; Harvard Business School Working Paper) confirms that, in general, highly creative people are less honest than averagely creative people. The reason for this seems to be that creative people can use their creativity to justify their actions in ways that less creative people cannot do.

Soft Skills Matter in Business – Even if Not Measurable

Throughout my career, I have had the opportunity to work alongside some brilliant co-workers and clients. Whether it has been inside a public accounting firm, or as an advisor to engineering and construction companies, I am often surrounded by folks with strong technical skills. Since my role has usually involved organizational development, strategy, or marketing and business development, I have heard time and again how “soft and fuzzy” topics such as relationships, emotional intelligence, and creativity and communication are less needful than the technical skills.

Susan Mazza, who writes a blog entitled Random Acts of Leadership, recognizes the dichotomy of “soft” versus “hard” skills in her recent post, “The Power of Soft.” She states in the post that, “the very need to distinguish “soft” vs. “hard” speaks to a paradigm that has long revered hard results as the only ones that really matter. Unless something can be quantified and measured the underlying belief is that it is somehow less valuable and hence of lesser importance.”Soft vs hard skills

Whether I have been in conversations with a CFO, a business owner, or a  VP of operations, I have heard over and again how that which cannot be measured must be insignificant and pale in priority. Mazza references a recent TED Talk by Dr. Brene’ Brown, “Leaning into Vulnerability” in which Brown shares how one of her research professors once stated, “If you cannot measure it, it doesn’t exist.” Mazza observes that many with advanced degrees subscribe to a scientific framework that assumes “measurable” is the only test for “real!”

Dr. Brown’s talk about vulnerability addressed the effort to view “soft” subjects with “hard” data. New insights have prevailed that challenge the long-held distinction within the business world of the value of each category of skills. Mazza’s view of the new awareness is that, “in our relentless pursuit to collect and analyze data, we all too often ignore the most important measure of all – our senses!”

The behavior we see and emotions we feel, according to Mazza, are the source of the most powerful tool we have as leaders and mangers – our ability to observe. She observes the following:

You have probably heard the phrase, “the tension was so thick you could cut it with a knife.” Can’t you feel that tension? How much productive work gets done when that kind of tension is present? Yet we often grind through what we see and feel through simple observation, knowing both the experience and the result are going to be less than satisfying.

Would having a mood Geiger Counter to assign the tension a number really make any difference?

By simply observing the mood and the impact it is having on your ability to fulfill your commitments, you are able to take action to make a difference in any moment. How to take that action is, of course, another subject.

The point here is the real power of soft comes from our innate ability to observe. So perhaps it’s time to give up our attachment to measuring all things and the belief that, “If you can’t measure it it doesn’t exist.”  Why not start  learning to better use the tools we have been born with – our senses – as an access to improving relationships, enhancing performance and creating great places to work?

The ability to navigate through tensions, create win-win scenarios, and build esprit de corps comes not from technical, “hard” skills, but from those soft and fuzzy assets that many C-suite executives and business owners underestimate. Think about your own organization and how greater respect for soft skills could make it a better place to work, where senses are valued equally with data and relationships that build goodwill are put on a pedestal.

 

 

 

My China Shop Needs No Bulls

Too many corporations put “bulls” in executive roles, and surprisingly hope for good things. Hard-nosed tactics may produce some short-term gains. Under the surface, employee engagement often suffers, which can spur greater turnover and undesirable business performance. Peter Friedes, founder of the management think tank Managing People Better, offers a parable to illustrate (below):

Roger the Bull

Roger always “tells,” rarely “asks.” He knows what he wants, demands it, and pushes everyone to adapt to his schedule and expectations. He believes that every second counts and does not view relationship-building as time well spent or a necessary activity for getting great work done.

He is not empathetic or understanding. He rarely changes his mind, even with new information. He operates solely on his own agenda, showing little or no interest in his employees’ opinions. He rejects suggestions quickly, as he knows others’ ideas won’t work. He easily confronts people, often using words that are harsh, strong, or judgmental. He can be arrogant, as if to say he has all the answers. He doesn’t trust his employees to do a good job, so he hovers and corrects them.

Roger doesn’t include others before making decisions. While he thinks he coaches his employees, his “coaching” comes across as demands. No one would call him nurturing or encouraging. His language and tone exude frustration and anger. He is extremely unpleasant to work for.

bull in china shopFriedes writes that, while Roger may have flourished as a department of one in the past, his lack of understanding of how to motivate others is a huge drawback to managerial effectiveness. What is recommended are two key skill sets:

  • Relating, which includes relationship-building activities such as asking, listening, including, coaching, and encouraging.
  • Requiring, which encompasses results-oriented activities such as setting expectations, focusing on goals, insisting on excellence, establishing appropriate controls, confronting performance issues, and asserting your views.

Read about Friedes’ experiences in trying to coach Roger-types:

Bulls are the hardest managers to coach. They typically don’t listen well. They often think they have the answers already. Over the years, I’ve tried the following messages, with limited success:

  1. “You are a results-oriented manager. But you would get far better results by asking, listening, including, coaching, and encouraging your people more often, and lowering the volume on how you demand and require of your people.”

  2. “You were an excellent, hard-working individual achiever. But now your success is measured by how well you let others achieve. This takes a different set of skills. Unless you develop these skills, you cannot be effective as a manager.”

  3. “Your goal is fine…to do a lot of excellent work and meet productivity objectives. But the manner you use to get results is damaging our business and sabotaging your career.”

  4. “Our top employees will not work for an over-Requiring, under-Relating manager very long. They will seek a more reasonable manager and leave or transfer. That will require you to start over with new people, lowering your productivity. Over time, the company will not want to give you any new people.”

  5. “You have taught your people to give you exactly what you want, but they no longer give you new ideas or suggestions for how to do things better. You have demotivated them, which is why you see them lacking.”

  6. “I know you don’t need to be liked. But you do need people to appreciate and respect being managed by you. You are not on track to get that respect.”

Since Bulls feel justified in their treatment of others, none of these statements are likely to produce changed behavior. However, being straightforward, according to Friedes, and saying “You are failing as a manager” or “You will be fired if this over-Requiring, under-Relating behavior continues.” may have the desired impact.

(Want to see how Bullish you are? Take a free assessment !)