How Leaders Best Seed and Nourish Innovation

  • Image

Published on: September 2017

Written by: Madhusudan Reddy

Key practices for building a culture of innovation

This article was originally published by People Matters, a niche media company working to create an HR community focused on following best practices and finding innovative ideas. It is the first Indian HR magazine with a global scope and multi-media integration. The following article was published online on August 31, 2017.


How Leaders Nourish Innovation


What is the first thing that you think about when you hear the word innovation?

A great product or service?

A visionary leader or company?

Or is it new ideas that brought a paradigm shift in a business or marketplace?

A number of top innovative companies invest a lot in R&D to stay ahead. However, research shows that the companies that spend the most R&D dollars aren’t necessarily the most innovative. Therefore innovation can no longer be restricted to new products or services, which is usually what the R&D function delivers.

For companies to be successful today and in the future, innovation must stretch across everyone in the organization. Therefore, the definition of innovation needs to move to be the discipline of discovering and fulfilling needs in new ways that create value, under conditions of high uncertainty. This means that innovation is both a process and a mindset that everyone can learn. As with everything in life, some have a natural tendency for being innovative while others do better in other areas. The bottom line, though, is that everyone can learn the concepts and process for being more innovative.

“Successful innovation leaders resist the temptation to point out why an idea won’t work—even if the flaws appear evident—and instead focus energy on the harder question of how to make it work.”

One of the fundamental pillars of driving an innovative work culture is the leadership culture of the company. Working with clients across the world, BTS has observed that companies that have a culture of innovation also have leaders that foster an environment where ideas can come to life and be tested before they’re killed and the employee discouraged from bringing new ideas to the table.

So, how is this done? In early stages of driving innovation, leaders need to articulate the meaning of innovation in a given business context and map it to the business strategy. And they need to suspend judgment and create a psychological safe space for people to freely and openly express their ideas without fear of retribution or judgment. This allows employees to experiment, and to fail quickly and cheaply.

Below are some of the key leadership behaviors to build a culture of innovation in a company:

Articulate Innovation: Leaders need to clearly define and communicate the type of innovation that is expected and describe how it is linked to the company’s strategic objectives. This ensures that leaders avoid receiving ideas that don’t advance their agendas, and that employees don’t feel like their ideas are dismissed.

Create the space for failure: Leaders allow intelligent risk-taking and failure. If people have followed the defined innovation process, any project that doesn’t deliver an ROI is viewed as a successful step in the innovation process—not a failure.

Encourage opposing viewpoints: Leaders systematically and energetically seek out new different viewpoints and different ideas rather than simply “the right idea”. Instead of dominating conversations, they use their influence and authority to stimulate idea flow.

At the stage where innovative ideas are being put to practice, it is important for leaders to ensure that all concerns are addressed and that trust is built. Leaders also need to think about the long-term goals that align with the vision of the company rather than immediate results.

Leverage the collective intelligence of teams: Leaders support intellectual conflict. This behavior requires senior leaders to genuinely believe in the collective intelligence of their teams. They possess the self-confidence and mutual trust to practice vigorous debate without damaging personal relationships as they are able to separate issues from people.

Focus on how to make an idea work: Innovation leaders resist the temptation to point out why an idea won’t work—even if the flaws appear evident—and instead focus energy on the harder question of how to make it work. This behavior is pivotal because new ideas are vulnerable to being killed early in the ideation process precisely because they do seem absurd or unfamiliar.

Balance short-term and long-term objectives: Leaders strike the appropriate balance between meeting short-term objectives and making long-term bets. When allocating resources (people and capital), they clearly think beyond the current quarter and commit resources to ideas and actions with uncertain outcomes.

Then, leaders need to drive the right solutions and be attuned to the knowing how to manage business outcomes and situations that are radically different from the one they had envisioned.

Identify “what would have to be true”: When faced with a difficult choice that has uncertain outcomes, leaders need to identify the things that would have to be true for it to work, rather than push for what is true.

Co-create solutions: Leaders know when to have the “right question” versus “the right answer.” A team or an individual often come to leaders with problems. Rather than attempt to solve the problem, innovation leaders ask probing questions to help them find innovative solutions on their own.

Leadership behaviors that drive innovation can be taught and mastered through practice. One of the most powerful ways to stimulate the immediate creation of tangible “Ahahs” and insights is to allow people to take part of development programs using ”powerful experiences” that incorporate advances in neuroscience and experiential learning. These experiences need to be designed to inspire curiosity and the willingness to test drive new approaches to innovation, leadership, and decision-making, and to explore how these new ideas can be practiced and socialized back on the job.

Simulations often play a key part in these experiences and are a great way for leaders to practice real-life scenarios that they need to respond to and how their actions drive certain outcomes. Simulations also help leaders recognize the moments where they need to take a step back and let their employees drive their ideas forward. In the end, whichever mode of development is used, to create a sustainable culture of innovation leaders must understand how they successfully foster the environment for an innovation culture to flourish.