Five Leadership Actions that Unleash Innovation

Unleashed Innovation

In today’s global economy, leaders have to be relentlessly innovative.

Jeffrey Phillips, author and consultant on business innovation cites four reasons why innovation is more critical than ever before:

  • Shorter product lifecycles
  • Reduced barriers to trade
  • Increased access to information
  • Lower costs of entry

Yet the failure rate of innovation is high. Last summer I toured SRI International, a Silicon Valley innovation incubator. They said that of 500 new patents each year, only five (1%) ever make it to market.

Competition flies, like a fastball, seemingly out of the left field, forever changing the name of the game. Look at what’s happened to print news, music CDs, telephone landlines.

And this is just to name just a few…

Thinking Differently

Innovation requires creativity which comes from divergent thinking.

One or two people in a work unit may have unique talents for developing consistently new ideas. By relying only on them, leaders risk missing opportunities to tap into the potential of latent creativity in their organization.

With such a high failure rate, leaders can’t afford to do this.

The implication for leaders is that they must learn to manage diverse inter-disciplinary teams because these produce fresh ideas more quickly than individuals or more homogeneous groups (see study here).

Five Leadership Actions that Unleash Innovation

What does a leader need to do to unleash innovation?

Successful innovation is a function of numbers (generating lots of new ideas), rapid prototyping, and effective execution. All of these need leaders who not only have strategy and business acumen but who excel at people skills.

While this is not an exhaustive list, the five leadership actions below will build a firm foundation on which to encourage and ultimately reap the benefits of innovation.

1) Actively sponsor a culture of innovation throughout the organization

Create a climate in which calculated risk-taking, experimentation, and failure are supported and rewarded. Provide resources (funds, materials, facilities, and time) that enable creativity and experimentation. Clarify the real and legitimate constraints but avoid over-controlling the innovation initiatives or over-emphasizing efficiency and productivity during the idea generation stages.

Encourage wild and unusual ideas even if they don’t make sense at first. Creativity doesn’t thrive in tightly controlled environments.

Protect the innovation teams from political game playing and interpersonal competition. Establish reward systems that recognize the team effort as well as individual contributions.

2) Form and develop diverse, cross-functional innovation teams

Diversity unlocks creativity that drives innovation. A new study by the Center for Talent Innovation provides quantitative data to support this point.

It identifies two types of diversity, both of which are important to harness: inherent diversity (age, race, gender, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, socioeconomic background, disability, nationality) and acquired diversity (cultural fluency, generational savvy, gender smarts, social media skills, cross-functional knowledge, global mindset, military experience, language skills).

Team members do need to share domain knowledge.

3) Master conflict management skills and provide such training to innovation teams

Diverse groups, indeed divergent thinking, means conflict. It is inevitable and in the search for innovation, conflict is even desirable.

Unresolved or poorly managed conflict and unproductive competitiveness among team members hamper creativity.

Therefore, leaders who master conflict management skills have an advantage over those who don’t. Leaders are responsible for making sure that conflicts are addressed not avoided—the stakes are much too high to leave this to chance.

If necessary, bring in a professional facilitator to help teams deal with particularly sticky and challenging issues. Protect the organization’s investment by ensuring that every team member receives training in and practices effective conflict management.

4) Provide training on creativity and then unleash the team

Everyone is creative. They may be out of practice. They may feel that their ideas are not wanted in the workplace. They may have a limited definition of creativity, believing it belongs only to artists and scientists. They don’t recognize how they use creativity in many daily activities.

Creativity is a process that involves finding patterns and connections, often from unrelated elements, to bring something new into being. Anyone can do this.

The good news is that there is a large body of work available to teach, or more accurately remind, people how to do it. (see authors deBono, Michalko, and Mihaly). The more creative thinking tools the innovation team has at its disposal, the faster they are likely to develop new usable ideas.

5) Accept and don’t suppress truly new ideas

One of the challenges of true innovation is that the new, being unfamiliar, is uncomfortable. Use the organization’s procedures to run new ideas through the necessary gauntlet of gates to determine their efficacy.

But don’t squash them from the get-go just because they seem risky. There is no innovation without risk. Just be smart about it.

What do you think leaders need to do to encourage innovation? Why might employees hold back their best creative ideas in the workplace? How does conflict and lack of effective leadership hamper creativity and innovation?


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Jagoda Perich-Anderson, M.A. is President of JPA TANGO
She helps leaders harness the power of conflict to build innovative solutions
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L2L Contributing Author

1 Comment

  1. asimancas on January 16, 2014 at 10:24 am

    Reblogged this on Network of thought.