How to Create a Culture of Innovation
Business leaders set the tone for creative solutions.
Andrea, who has led a turnaround that seems to have stalled, complains that her people are “putting out fires” instead of thinking more creatively and proactively. Hearing that some say she’s thwarting momentum with practices that promote fear, she says she can replace anyone who thinks that. When Rick is told by his chief engineer that his timeline is just not feasible for delivery of an innovative, complex, major new commercial product for a key client, he refuses to listen, demanding that the timeline be met. The product is delivered after the engineer quits, and the client is enraged that it has never worked properly, causing Rick to send a team of engineers overseas for three months to fix the problems. Claudia asks that a logo be created as a first step to communicate her organization’s need to become more innovative.
What you don’t understand about innovation and your role in it as a leader can cost you. Innovation can mean many things. At its essence, it’s a change in what has been established. What if what you hold to be true, what has worked for you in the past, doesn’t fit the situation you are facing? At a time when offerings we never knew we needed are transforming multiple industries in ever briefer windows of time, learning more about leading innovation can be crucial to your career and your organization’s viability.
Otto Scharmer, senior lecturer at MIT, has interviewed top innovators, led innovation processes that have transformed communities and organizations, and written about it in the book Theory U. He notes that your approach or, as he puts it, the way in which you “attend” to a situation, determines how a situation unfolds.
“Creating a culture of innovation is a journey, not a proclamation,” says David Culton, who has led innovation processes for major organizations over 10 years as a senior business innovationist for Boston-based Creative Realities. “It’s about creating an environment of possibility. Innovation is completely stifl ed by fear, which promotes ‘either/or’ thinking. You must know what you mean by innovation or a culture of innovation, why it’s important to you and what you are asking your people to do in relationship to it. You need to be willing to step out of your own comfort zone to align others to achieve it.”
To create a culture of innovation, ask yourself if you are willing to do the following:
- Create a compelling shared view of the future that is meaningful to you and those you work with. It’s a powerful inquiry and a process of engagement that takes time. Our old, familiar ways of doing things keep us from making changes when there is no powerful stake in the new way.
- Challenge your own assumptions. What new practices may you need to adopt? What might you be doing to keep the status quo in place?
- Be willing to be coached and to learn. Innovation is about learning. If you expect others to learn when you will not, there will be a lack of trust and respect, vital to the process.
- Listen. Observe. Cultivate curiosity about what is happening “underneath” what is obvious, and what is blocking progress.
Jackie Sloan is an executive coach specializing in leadership communication. Her clients report greater effectiveness, visibility, influence and satisfaction through becoming more strategic in how they work with others. Have a topic you’d like to see covered in this column? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.