The Know-how of Innovative Leadership

The Know-how of Innovative Leadership

Sustainable entrepreneurship determines the survival of an organization in today’s rapidly changing economy. To maintain the growth curve, certain entrepreneurial aspects must be integrated into the company’s culture. What ensures this sustainability is the consistent remodeling of strategies, and a constant re-evaluation of priorities.

Complacency cannot be allowed to set in.

The most effective way to eliminate the culture of complacency is to inculcate a culture of innovation. Used in a broader sense, innovation can become a tool that aids in the company’s performance and growth. 

While it is common for most managers to lament the lack of innovation in approaches, once they start leading the process, the gap between inspiration and innovation will invariably decrease.

Leaders must lead innovation

The concepts of vision, innovation and leadership often run into each other, with less obvious boundaries. A clear vision is a prerequisite to innovation in any field. Innovative approaches to problem solving arise from collective creativity. And for this, a leader must be able to lead innovation.

Spearheading innovative thinking is possible only when the leader himself is capable of innovation. What also works is good old-fashioned brainstorming sessions, where the leader facilitates a platform for ideation and establishes a dialog among the team members. Sessions like these must have some ground rules:

Leave your ego at the door. As simple as it sounds, members in a team must have no fear in sharing their ideas and must feel comfortable enough to speak honestly. The apprehension of offending a superior or creating conflict with a peer is a very common impediment. Creating a platform that is conducive to creative thinking and comfortable for safe and open communication is the first step for a leader.

Admit that you don’t have all the answers. It is common for employees to imagine that their senior colleagues will have more experience, and that they will have the answer to everything. This will restrict open communication as most will have the easily-diagnosed-but-never-acknowledged syndrome of ‘poor insignificant me’. It is good to admit that you don’t have all the answers. Nothing opens a door to communication better than the admission of ignorance.

Be ready to receive feedback. Not often does a leader have his ideas shot down by the people who report to him. In an open communication forum, the chances of this scenario are high. The collective must always value more than the individual. So even if the leader is unwilling to accept that someone else’s ideas are more viable than his, he must have the courage to see beyond the person and see the product.

In his book, Creativity Inc., Pixar Co-founder Ed Catmull talks about the Pixar Braintrust, a management tool he says has helped the company produce 14 consecutive box office hits. The Braintrust is a group of ‘smart, passionate people’ who meet regularly to assess a particular movie in production. This is a safe zone which encourages straight talk, where no one has to fear the trauma of rejection or ridicule, and a an extremely creative space where ideas and innovation are in abundance.

Leaders must establish a culture of innovation

Innovation must be a part of the norm rather than a last-minute plan for firefighting. We must build a culture based on creative freedom. Other than ad-hoc brainstorming sessions designed to solve a particular issue, certain global corporations have come up with inspired methodologies to keep up their creative spirit.

Michelin Tires has a very thought-through process. They created Global Incubators, a sort of in-house startup incubator. It recruits employees from within the company, and provides funding to experiment with their promising ideas. The team then has the freedom and the resources to test their ideas and see if they are viable.

Although Marissa Mayer burst the bubble, Google’s mythical 20% time concept actually makes sense. Before Mayer’s comments on its non-existence, Founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin had said that the company encourages its employees to spend 20% of their time working on whatever they believe is best for the company. This encourages creativity and innovation, and according to Google, gave birth to Gmail and Google Maps.

Ideation comes from diversification

Leaders must understand that great ideas can come from anywhere and anyone. Hence, the ideation process must not be restricted to the top management. Apart from creating a safe zone, an environment of openness must be created that encourages departments to present viable plans for any process or service that aren’t necessarily related to their line of work. Expertise can be limited to specific fields, but knowledge can extend to many more.

Pixar’s humanistic way of management applies here too. Recruiting talented employees and empowering them to take on responsibilities, all the while providing a safety net creates a culture based on trust. Once the crippling fear of failure is removed, innovation comes easily enough.

Elon Musk’s quote weighs heavy with contextual significance. “Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you're not innovating enough."

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