How NASA Built an Innovation Program

Learning & Development Executive Summit Spring

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If you want to lead a transformation in the business, then you have to sell the idea over and over again to people throughout the organisation. In particular, the leader has to answer these questions which are present in people’s minds even if they are unspoken.

  1. Why do we need to change? We have already had so much change and now things are starting to go well so why rock the boat? People will not accept or support change unless they can see a very clear need. Leaders at all levels have to keep promoting the reasons for the change, the benefits of innovation and the dangers of complacency and resting our laurels.
  2. How are we going to change? How will it affect me and my work here? How will it affect my future? People quite reasonably are suspicious. They fear that there is a hidden agenda and that their jobs and careers might be threatened. They need a clear picture of how the change will take place and what their role is in the change. Will they need to learn new skills or adopt new working practices?
  3. What areas need change? Which departments are involved and what will they do differently? What is the real purpose of the change and who will be affected? It is important to stress that although change is needed there is no blame attached to any of the departments involved. It has to be positioned as an opportunity for growth and development.
  4. How do we innovate? It might be worth saying that we do not have all the answers here. We need people’s help to find better ways to do things. We want their ideas and input. That is why it is critical to get their buy-in to the change – back to question 1 above. Show the desired outcome and ask for input on how best to get there.
  5. Whose job is it? It is easy to assume that it is other people’s responsibility. R&D should do the product innovation. HR should do the retraining. We will just wait for the change to happen. The leader must show clearly that everybody has a part to play. This is a team effort which requires commitment.
  6. When will we do this? Timescales are important. The leader must set realistic goals. The need for change is urgent but we are not going to rush it. With your help and commitment, we can make this happen.

A fatal mistake is to tell people about the change once and then to assume that they accept it. They will not. As the leader you have to keep answering the questions above—and many more. You have to hammer away at the need for change so that people understand that you are serious and so that they understand the reasons for the change. You have to address their personal concerns about how the change will affect them personally. People do not fear change. They fear the unknown. They resent uncertainty and doubt. Leaders lead by answering questions, by addressing concerns and by clarifying issues. The clear purpose of the leader is to give a clear purpose to the team.

About the author

Paul Sloane is the author of The Leader’s Guide to Lateral Thinking Skills and The Innovative Leader. He writes, talks and runs workshops on lateral thinking, creativity and the leadership of innovation. Find more information at destination-innovation.com.

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