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Innovation – The role of leadership in innovation

In the previous article I discussed the merits of approaching innovation as a business discipline.  The motivation behind this is the fact that if innovation is important, why wouldn’t it have a defined methodology and process as well?
However, before making all of this happen, there is one key “ingredient” that will be the ultimate decisive factor which will determine your organisation’s success at innovation, and that is the leadership of your organisation.
The role of leadership in innovation
Let me start by stating the obvious:  It is not the equipment, computers, business processes or technology in your organisation that will innovate; it is the people in your organisation who will generate and implement the ideas. This might sound easy, but humans are complex beings and it requires a conducive environment to actually get them to submit ideas and implement them as well.
Let us look at why organisational innovation usually fails (based on research from Gartner). Organisations often struggle with the seemingly simple act of engaging employees in generating ideas. The organisation says that it requires change (e.g. “we need to increase sales”) and need ideas about how to accomplish the change. The prospect of innovation usually generates excitement among employees, and lots of ideas are offered. At this point, cultural norms begin to control the direction of innovation, and the following scenario usually plays out: Little or no feedback is provided to the owners and initiators of ideas (the message is that participation is not valued); Ideas are dismissed because, “that will never work here” (the message is that the organisation is change-averse); Operational managers reject ideas because, “we don’t have time to implement anything new”, or “if it’s not broken, then don’t fix it” (the message is that there will be no cooperation); Funding for development of ideas never materialises (the message is that the organisation never plans to spend money on this).
In this scenario, the end result is not only that the current ideas are dismissed but that ideas stop flowing, the innovation initiative deteriorates and managers wonder what happened. The simple answer is: “Action speak louder than words.” Employees take their cues from the action and behaviour of their managers and leaders rather than from their words. Employees will conclude that neither innovation nor their ideas are valued, because there is no demonstrable change in the action of leaders and managers.  So what can leaders do to promote and nurture a culture of innovation in the organisation?  My advice to leaders who need to engage and develop innovation in the organisation is a simple three step process: Communicate, Demonstrate, Participate.
Due to space constraints, I will give a few examples for each step, but please note that these are not conclusive. COMMUNICATE: A commitment to ideas, innovation and growth; The strategic linkage of innovation/growth and the organisation’s future; The need for everyone in the organisation to contribute.  DEMONSTRATE: Placing the innovation initiative on an equal footing with other business disciplines within the organisation; A commitment to the initiative by securing sufficient financial resources to manage the process, collect, select and develop ideas, invest in the future.
PARTICIPATE:  In developing a set of problems or challenges for people to solve; Directly in idea generation sessions; By sitting on or chairing idea selection committees; Via the concept of management by walking around; Talk to people.

Next Time
Leadership is the key factor that will determine your organisation’s culture.  Organisational culture is a complex topic and has a significant influence on innovation and therefore it will be the next topic to be covered.

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