Innovation is a word on everyone’s lips. Events about it or with an agenda on innovation-related subjects (digital transformation, Internet of Things, customer experience, etc.) are sold out; yet, why is it so hard for us to differentiate from the competition by being innovators?

Or, to put it another way, why is it so difficult for an organization to generate innovative results sustainably over time? Results that improve their positioning in the market, customer retention, increase their value and, consequently become a landmark that serves as an inspiration to other organizations?

The answer is that the focus on innovation itself is mistaken. It should not be the goal but the outcome of our way of doing things. Therefore, we should focus on how to address both our day-to-day and resources. Central to this is the leadership style of the organization.

The leadership style sets the way we measure results, how we define success, how we recognize achievements and how we reward our associates; all of them, concepts that generate a certain culture, our organization’s culture. This could be a short-term culture where the prevailing lingua franca is the controlling one, or it might be a culture that goes beyond said lingua franca, combining management and exploration.

In such a respect, the role of leaders is vital, since whenever they encourage metrics, success and retributions for current services and products, they are setting limits to the exploration of that which would make us different and appealing to the market and would secure our future.

To direct our organization towards an innovation culture, our leaders should have a future vision that leads them to:

  • Keeping in mind both the exploitation of the known and the exploration of the unknown
  • Measuring the results in a very different manner
  • Having a success definition where mistakes and learning are accepted
  • Recognizing and rewarding both exploitation achievements and exploration achievements

Also, our leaders should ensure the availability of rules of the game that allow us to develop our own Innovation Culture lingua franca. As a team, we need to:

✓ Share the specific definition of innovation with our organization.
✓ Share the explicit and vivid definition of:

– Success
– Mistakes
– Learning
– Purpose

✓ Perceive that the exploration is not something just a few people do (maybe at the beginning it is, yet, it should ultimately be spread to everybody).
✓ Be recognized and remunerated for both the exploitation of the known and the exploration of the unknown.
✓ Notice that those involved in the innovative process are recognized, and not only those who cross the finish line.1

To be able to kick off with solvency such unconventional hard-concepts and to harness the rules of the game, we still need another requirement: that our leaders develop soft skills pursuant to the endeavor. The fundamentals are:

  • Being authentic leaders, this means, being coherent with what you think, say, do and feel
  • Being the masters of the open-ended question
  • Dominating the art of listening

✓ Authenticity creates the framework of confidence
✓ Open-ended questions challenge the imagination and exploration
✓ Active listening stimulates creativity and discovery

Such a set of skills put into action generates a surrounding and supportive climate for the flourishing of two innate qualities of every human being that are fundamental for innovation: curiosity and creativity.

Daily change

The basic scheme of the daily routine in a traditional organization is:

  • Those in senior positions think and give direction
  • Those below listen, interpret and act

The scheme of the daily activity of an innovative organization is quite different:

  • Leaders reflect and share their reflections with their associates as open-ended questions
  • Associates listen, reflect, make questions, browse, share, try, show, learn and present their results and learning to leaders
  • In turn, leaders listen, get surprised, ask, challenge, learn, get involved, provide resources

Various effects arise from the magic of this virtuous circle:

  • We improve existing products, services and processes
  • We discover new problems, opportunities and needs that we can meet with new products, services and processes
  • Talent stays since it feels comfortable with being able to develop in a creativity tolerant framework
  • Talent attracts new talent
  • Such a combination of talent generates trends that inspire others

As the innovation culture consolidates, we see how the word innovation is no longer used, since it is simply something that happens naturally as part of everyday life. As such, it becomes something that doesn’t need to be spoken about.

Moving from knowing to doing

Many organizations are obsessed with innovation, however, the most innovative organizations have focused on encouraging, by leading by example, a culture where everyone is constantly exploring issues, needs and opportunities to be met; therefore, innovation becomes the natural consequence.

How many organizations do you know who have started the innovation process by generating a glossary with the definitions of innovation, mistakes, successes and any other word required to prevent misunderstandings and frustrations? How many organizations are you aware of that have made innovation related investments, trainings and certifications?

Most of the time, we receive more positive answers to the last question than to the first one.

And, we do not mean that concepts, methods and tools around innovation are less relevant … but, there is something paramount and critical which is that leaders keep in mind that whenever they tell you what to do, they kill your creativity; though, when they ask: What should we do? (and they listen actively) they could discover unexpected responses.

If such an encouraging attitude comes from the deepest coherence between what they think, say, do and feel, the impact on the trust of collaborators and consequently, on the culture, would be tremendous.

This is the magic of authentic leaders. How many authentic leaders do you know?

1 This is a classical error made by many organizations at their inception.  They recognize and reward the achievements obtained as it is made in the known world.  However, in innovation, the key is in the process.  This point will be the subject of a future article. ☺