How do you create the right conditions for your co-workers to mutually reinforce their commitment to your goals? Doug Collins looks at the four cornerstones of that process and how you can go about fostering them in an innovative workplace.

Innovation processes often begin with a meeting. That meeting must take place thousands of times each day across the globe. The leadership convenes a small group of people to help them determine the environment they need in order to become more innovative.

Participating in a dialogue with the groups that carry this innovation charter is always rewarding. The critical questions we ask, at first,  gravitate towards the transformative: What doors open for us as we make innovation a priority? What shape does our working life take on with our coworkers and our customers as we engage with one another in more innovative ways?

At some point, though, the group touches on the more sober subject of accountability. Who do we expect to participate in innovating when the process becomes more open and accessible? Do I make innovation part of my day job? Does the organization penalize me if I don’t participate?
The sub-text here is always, “but, I already have a day job with its own allotment of many sticks and few carrots.”

Accountability or leadership?

At these times when the group’s charter begins to weigh on them, my mind turns to an observation that the author Peter Koestenbaum makes in his book, Leadership: The Inner Side of Greatness.

“All authentic products (including services) must contain within them at least one element or module of leadership information. Thus, whatever else you sell, you are also selling leadership help to your customers” (emphasis added).

Thinking of leadership in this broader context helps shift the focus from “How do we hold one another accountable?” to “What does it mean to help the people in our organization achieve leadership in innovation?”. That in turn reopens the group to the larger possibilities for change that a focus on innovation—and working in an authentically innovative environment—can bring.

Likewise, shifting the focus opens the door to the question of commitment. That is, if the group is chartered with selling the benefits of innovation to their peers, then what do they want their peers buy into by way of leadership? What must they all commit to in order take the lead in creating a more innovative culture? What price do they pay to realize leadership in this domain?

Bringing out the willingness to learn

What the group finds is that innovation, as with other attributes that have broadly positive connotations such as quality or sustainability, in reality serves as a stalking horse for people’s willingness to engage in the messy act of learning something new and acting on that learning.

The commitment one makes to learn how to build an automobile with greater quality, for example, does not differ from the commitment one makes to learn how to pursue ideas about how to create new types of automobiles. The nature of the commitment is the same.

Helping the organization achieve leadership in innovation means that the group helps them get to the point where they find themselves asking themselves what price they are willing to pay in terms of following where their learning takes them in terms of, for example, their willingness to disrupt and displace current practices. Helping colleagues achieve leadership in innovation may even mean watching them leave to create new businesses that they feel will enable them to pursue their ideas to fruition. The group comes to understand that they can encourage innovation—or perhaps foment it in the eyes of the people who value the status quo. They cannot manage it in the conventional sense of the word, however (1).

Figure : Recasting the conversation

The group can continue down this line of enquiry by applying Koestenbaum’s Leadership Diamond Model. The model, which serves as the book’s theme, can become a further stepping off point by which the group engages the organization on the topic of what it means for them to achieve leadership in innovation.

By way of a brief summary, Koestenbaum finds that the leadership mind embraces the sometimes conflicting attributes of vision, courage, reality, and ethics to achieve greatness. 2 depicts the diamond image he uses to convey the concept.

Figure : Koestenbaum’s Leadership Diamond Model

Vision, Ethics, Courage, Reality

Applying the model may, for example, lead the group to pose the following questions:

  • Vision:     What does a more innovative organization look like? In terms of how we choose to spend our time? In terms of how we choose to engage with our internal and external customers? What transformations allow us to take a quantum leap forward, moving us to the forefront of new ideas, processes, and practices?
  • Ethics:     What commitment do we make to ensure our vision for innovation leadership reflects the views of the larger organization? What commitment do we make to maintaining our dedication to colleagues when, in pursuing an idea, they fail to realize its     potential—perhaps at great cost in time and money? What commitment do we make to develop, or mentor, people to become more innovative, beyond asking them for their ideas?
  • Courage: What does it mean for people in our organization to take personal responsibility for innovation? What behaviors and practices do we     ourselves model by way of example? What support do we lend when the journey grows long? When we experience many more failures than     successes?
  • Reality: What commitment do we make to understanding the market in which we operate and the customers we serve, whether internal or external?     What results do we want to achieve with them through evolutionary and transformative forms of innovation? What attention to detail do we need to achieve to realize the larger benefits of innovation?

People still entertain a prosaic notion of the knowledge worker: the amiable soul walking around with compelling insights in mind which, if we could only get them to stand still long enough to write them down (the desire to impose accountability), would improve all our lives. If only they would spend ten minutes each morning capturing their ideas. Perhaps we could give them a prize if they do so. Perhaps we could prod them if they decline.

Nothing could be further from the truth or farther removed from reality. Wake up.

In truth, we increasingly live in a world of free agents: people who exercise discretion in how they spend their time and with whom they spend it. Leading an innovation initiative today involves selling people on the idea that achieving leadership in innovation holds, or can hold, great meaning to them, offering them a path by which they can more fully realize their potential by whatever terms they agree to realize it with you—with your help.

In closing, if you participate in a group chartered with helping your organization become more innovative, then you will eventually find yourself advocating new ways of thinking and behaving within your community (i.e., selling).

Thinking about how you sell your leadership help, in terms of helping your clients achieve leadership in innovation, helps you clear the accountability trap. Innovation can become what it always should be: an invitation for learning, an opportunity to realize one’s potential, and a catalyst for reframing the terms by which the organization operates.

By Doug Collins

About the Author:

Doug Collins serves as an innovation architect. He has served in a variety of roles in helping organizations navigate the fuzzy front end of innovation by creating forums, venues, and approaches where the group can convene to explore the critical question. He today works at Spigit, Inc., where he consults with Fortune 1000 clients on realizing their vision for achieving leadership in innovation by applying social media and ideation markets in blended virtual and in-person communities.

Previously, Doug formed and led a variety of front end initiatives, including executive advisory programs for industry influencers, early adopter programs for lead users, corporate strategic planning, and structured explorations of new market and product opportunities. Before joining Spigit, Doug worked at Harris Corporation and at Structural Dynamics Research Corporation which is now part of Siemens Corporation.