[This blog post first appeared in the blog of the World of Learning Conference and Exhibition 2016: further details of this event appear at the end of this posting.]
Audiences for leadership advice and guidance have a surprising appetite for simplicity. Despite ample evidence that workplaces, organisations and even that near meaningless phrase, ‘life in general’, are complex, ambiguous and more organic than systematic, it is the soundbite, the pull quote or the numbered list that grabs their attention. In the spirit of ‘giving them what they want’, therefore, a single sentence of advice about leading for creativity and innovation:
Be the great leader you always wished you’d had.
The hallmarks of the exceptional leader
The attributes of the best workplace leaders are not a mystery. Exceptional leaders and managers share many characteristics:
- They spend time understanding those they lead so that they can inspire and motivate them
- They create a sense of shared purpose, gifting employees with a vision to provide focus and autonomy about its execution
- They use process to enable rather than to prevent, recognising that efficiency is not the only goal (and can misdirect efforts if over-pursued)
- They understand the potential synergy between diversity and collaboration
- They create space for people to pursue their passions, and ensure that they are resourced to succeed
- They understand the power of intrinsic motivation and create relationships and environments that encourage and develop it, offering recognition when and where it is due
- They encourage a ‘fail low, fail fast’ approach, helping people move on from the inevitability of failure rather than offering punishments that demotivate and disengage –
- They focus more energy on developing and encouraging others than on controlling them
- They understand the power of market disruption and prepare themselves to be agile enough to respond
- They manage the environment, atmosphere and team morale more than individual methods; they recognise that macro-management outperforms micro-management, and that checking in trumps checking up
While these are attributes and behaviours that we would all like to see displayed more often, and by more leaders, there is one mystery than does need to be exposed. These are also the characteristics that most enhance and inspire creativity and innovation.
What do we mean by innovation?
Creativity and innovation are not just about products and services, although those are the arenas most frequently associated with them. Innovation also has a vital role to play in organisational design, team working, job design, customer service (internally and externally) – indeed, in every aspect of organisational life. Innovation is about doing things not just differently, but better. And what else should exceptional leadership lead to?
Assuming that the organisation is committed to improving its offering, its competitiveness and its sustainability – and alarm bells should already have been ringing if this is not the case – that commitment should already be evident at every level. While management commentators may argue about the difference (if any) between innovation and change, if they are not synonymous they are at least co-dependent: innovating successfully requires subsequent change. ‘Better’ has to mean ‘differently’, and ‘getting better’ has to start with both wanting it to happen and allowing it to proceed.
Four myths of innovation
Innovation also means challenging pre-conceived ideas, but leading for innovation also means accepting that pre-conceived ideas about innovation itself may need to be reconsidered:
- Great innovators have no greater ‘hit rate’ with ideas than other people, but they do generate more ideas; ‘first thought, best thought’ may be Allan Ginsburg’s snappiest slogan, but it owes more than a little to William Blake, who a century earlier had written ““First thought is best in Art, second in other matters.” As advice for organisational innovation, Blake’s may well be superior
- In selecting ideas to develop, refine and pursue, think about the judging mind-set. “Is this a bit like something we already have or know” is not the best approach here, although it is one that many managers – perhaps a little too steeped in a culture of compliance – tend to adopt. If we (lazily) think of innovation as hundreds of bright sparks, we need to realise that compliance can all too often work either as a wet blanket or as a fire extinguisher. “Why?” is always a great question, but “Why not?” is just as good and opens more possibilities. Don’t talk yourself – or others – out of making a positive difference.
- Speed isn’t everything, and patience can be as important as tolerance and open-mindedness. Consider the case of Irish writer Eimar McBride. Her debut novel, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, was written in 2004 but rejected as unmarketable by innumerable major publishers before a small imprint took a gamble in 2013. It proceeded to win the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, the Goldsmiths Prize, the Desmond Elliott Prize, the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize. Sometimes, the tortoise travels further than the hare.
- Always encourage contributions, but remember than crowdsourcing and groupthink are not the same thing. Even where dissenters are ultimately wrong, their ability and willingness to challenge can strengthen ideas by testing them. This may require retrospective action where recruitment or team-selection practices have previously be guided by a desire to build consensus rather than diversity: hiring people to agree with you makes for a calm life, but not necessarily for one that makes a great deal of progress. And even if you have hired a wide range of talents, remember to let them make the contributions that attracted you to them – and to voice the enthusiasm that attracted them to you.
Some counter-intuitive final advice for innovation leaders? Look back. Remember that job you were so excited to get, where you had so many ideas about how you could help to make a real change? And then remember the manager who didn’t listen to them or offer encouragement.
Don’t be them. Your team – and your organisation – will thank you.
To find out more, come to the World of Learning Conference seminar – Creating Creative Environments – that Liaquat Lal will be leading in Theatre 2 on Wednesday 19 October at 13.45. To find out more about all of ASK’s services or speak to one of our consultants, visit us at Stand G80 on 19-20 October 2016.