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Acting your way to innovation: 5 innovators discuss eliminating the culture barrier


In recent years, 63% of organisations in the US have hired a Chief Innovation Officer. But with such buzz around this term, do senior management’s actions help embrace innovation or preserve the status quo?

In a recent article, Linda Hill, Wallace Brett Donham professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, took on innovation and change management and argued:

Leaders need to learn how to amplify difference, whereas many leaders learn how to minimize it. I find that many organizations aren’t doing what they need to do because the leader is uncomfortable. [...] You can’t plan your way to innovation, you have to act your way.”

Following this, we asked 5 innovation specialists their opinion on leadership’s attitude towards developing an innovation culture and how they believe leaders could more successfully open their companies to innovation.

John Nosta

John Nosta, President, NostaLab, @JohnNosta

My sense is that leaders often don't lead.  They translate. Today, leaders grab on to trends and market dynamics as an attempt to keep up and stay relevant.

But the real problem—particularly in technology—is that much is lost in translation. The aspects of leadership are often replaced by the empty banter that included words such as "innovate", "disrupt" and "transform".  In the final analysis, leaders often strive to build a round square—something easily articulated but functionally impossible.

A central driver of innovation is culture. And culture is catalysed from above.

Today, leaders need to lead by example. And these examples spring from a collaborative environment where failure and success are embraced as part of the innovation process. 

Finally, innovative leadership is less about a practical knowledge of a market sector, but more about the installation of "psychic permission" for the business employees to think and act in new and exciting ways that break from the yoke of the status quo.

Mok O’Keeffe

Mok O’Keeffe, Founder, The Innovation Beehive, @innovationbee

At the core of innovation is the intersection of diversity and difference. Learning how to spot and exploit these is the key to successful innovation.

Innovation does not occur when everyone has the same mindset and the same point of view.  Embracing different opinion and exploring alternative ways of doing things enable practitioners to see their challenge with fresh eyes and therefore spot new opportunities to create value and delight customers and end users.

In order to create the conditions for this, Leaders should build teams from diverse backgrounds and encourage healthy debate and experimentation.

Leaders’ discomfort at operating in this way, can be alleviated if their team have a clear Direction.  Different and diverse opinions may lead to pivots on the journey, but a clear Direction will ensure practitioners arrive at the final destination with the best possible solutions.

Rod Willmott

Rod Willmott, CEO, Wzard Innovation Ltd., @rwbdjr

Traditional organisations actually teach employees and managers NOT to innovate. There are many examples, where people that stood out, stood up for a principle or plugged a new idea were shot down, either before the idea was tried, half way through or after it was successful because the established management wanted to claim the credit or minimise the damage of their early dismissive attitude.

It’s common for the quiet and compliant to be progressed and the innovative thinkers to be marginalised or ‘let go’ and so a ‘tow-the-line’ culture is reinforced.

No, it’s much safer to keep your head down, keep quiet, follow the crowd and tell you manager how great he/she is than challenge the status quo and come up with something out of the ordinary.

Innovation is risky and challenging and more inspiration than historically proven business strategy. Many companies need to move from “why we can’t” to “we could if” mentality.

Simon Torrance

Simon Torrance, author/presenter, New Growth Playbook, @simon_torrance 

You need to have a clear vision of the future and a compelling 'purpose' that goes beyond 'making money for our shareholders' or being 'the leading provider of XYZ to the market'.

Unfortunately, many leaders of established companies are focused on the short term only, due to incentive schemes that drive their actions. Unless there is more longer term thinking then traditional companies will never be able to emulate the successes of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Tesla, Netflix and others.

Jason Dunning

Jason Dunning, Principal Consultant, DWF Consulting, @JDunningChange

It is all too easy for leaders to fall in to the trap of inadvertently hindering creative thinking. Whether that is so, boils down to how a particular organisation is set up to cope with and measure innovation.

For example, an employee can be fantastically knowledgeable and enthusiastic about new concepts and technologies, but if senior management implement dogmatic targets or output requirements, then unconscious bias will sadly play a part in curtailing that particular employee's approach to any given situation.

Now, that isn't to say that these leaders shouldn't get involved in the change process – it's their job to drive the organisation forward – but herein lies the difficulty.

Leaders must create the right environment for change to really thrive and this is often at odds with their requirement for tangible outputs. The true necessities for creative innovation – playfulness, learning and "thinking outside of the box" – are often brushed aside in favour of an ingrained and outmoded pattern of 'problem solving' and a focus on output. This approach massively stifles creativity and ultimately hinders the innovation process.

In order to think freely and creatively, the leaders of organisations need to break free from the shackles of convention and take a new approach to tackling issues. They should start focusing on understanding the problem, learn fast from failures, get to grips with the art of serious playfulness and try new techniques to foster different concepts and ideas.

It's incredibly tough for an organisation to change its spots for stripes but creating an environment that is not based on bottom line savings or scores, but one that nurtures the potential and untested, will ultimately foster real change. If you're ever going to break with tradition and convention, first you need to break with tradition and convention.

The 5-Day Innovation Mini-MBA empowers participants to take corporate innovation frameworks and capabilities back to their organisations. Whether you work in marketing, development, innovation, finance or sales, this programme will set you up with the tools to bring your ideas to life and lead cultural change.