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Creating a sustainable innovative environment is a leadership task. In order to succeed at this task, leaders must develop innovative abilities and develop them in their constituents. Here’s how.

The topic in the forefront of every senior executive’s mind is “How do we become more innovative?” As we adjust our thinking, strategies, and modes of operation to compete in what is no longer the “new” global economy, I suspect many of you have sat in a meeting in recent months and listened to the tired refrains, “We need more creative people”, “We should let our people know we like new ideas”, “We should increase our R&D budget”, “We must get new products to market before our competition”, or the newest buzz theme “We should outsource our innovation.”

Regardless of viewpoint it is probable you have concluded that if you don’t do something, you will get left behind. The status quo is no longer the status quo in the world of new ideas being exchanged, discussed, improved, and communicated across the world in real time. Status quo means you are decelerating compared to your competition, and before you know it you will see them in your rearview mirror as they prepare to lap you in the Innovation 500.

It is not just young visionary companies that consider innovation a priority. Take Microsoft for example, already a company with one of the largest R&D budgets in the world. Steve Balmer says he is wild about Microsoft’s latest passion: innovation. “We are going to see more innovation in the next five years than we have seen in the past decade,” Balmer told students, alumni, and press at Stanford’s School of Business. “If we are not innovating fast enough, if we are not innovating big enough, then we miss an opportunity to win.”

The view from the top of the hyper-competitive software marketplace is simple – the bigger the idea, the better.

The cleverest ideas don’t come from leaders, but rather from the leaders listening and encouraging and kind of creating a discussion.

Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, suggested to a group of attendees at an IT expo that to encourage new ideas at your company, just listen as your engineers run wild. “We prefer them to run rampant. The cleverest ideas don’t come from leaders, but rather from the leaders listening and encouraging and kind of creating a discussion.”

Schmidt also encouraged executives to have an open door policy when it came to technology demonstrations. “You want to see every conceivable demo, no matter how whacky it is,” he told the audience. “People love that. They get a chance to present to someone important like you. All of a sudden the whole (corporate culture) becomes about leadership and innovation.”

Schmidt’s advice seems in perfect harmony with the findings and suggestions of Michael Schrage, whose insightful book, Serious Play, details the importance of prototypes and the discussions they foster. “Good prototypes have ‘charisma.’ They create narratives… tell stories,” writes Schrage.

Okay, you are not a frequently brandished household name company like Microsoft and Google. But small, mid-size, or a multi-national – we are all trying to achieve similar things in our own space, stay ahead or get ahead of the competition, and create growth. It might be worth asking yourself the question, “What happens if we don’t build an innovative culture? How long will we remain in the race if our competition is lapping us?”

Fortunately, most of the corporate executives we speak with recognize the need for innovation. Sometimes they seem desperate trying to figure out how to create it. We suggest that Eric Schmidt revealed the answer when he said “All of a sudden the whole (corporate culture) becomes about leadership and innovation.”

The first key principle of innovation

The first key principle required for innovation is not developing individual creativity alone, but creating a sustainable innovative environment. This is a leadership task. In order to succeed at this task, leaders must develop innovative abilities and develop them in their constituents. We call these Innovation Fundamentals. They must also be able to create and sustain a Culture of Innovation by using these fundamentals to maintain key organizational dynamics.

Leaders must be able to:

  • Identify and overcome the basic barriers to innovation.
  • Apply prototyping principles to organizational innovation.
  • Create and deploy proven internal marketing principles to better incubate innovative projects.
  • Provide appropriate stimulation for constituents.
  • Create and maintain a culture of creative tension.
  • Use an appreciative approach to maintaining energy and resolve to complete innovative projects.
  • Maintain a culture of continuous play.

The second key principle required is to not get better at a portion of the above abilities, but to get better at all them as a system. Creating an innovative culture is without doubt a leadership issue but we need to develop all aspects of quality leadership in our senior teams if we expect to achieve our objectives on schedule.

The fish tank analogy

Take a moment to consider your organization as a tropical fish tank in need of a good cleaning. You remove all the guppies and send them off to the local guppy innovation spa where they experience several fun-filled exercises that teach them how to be more creative in their ecosystem (tank). They revel in delight – some even begin to imagine they are sharks- their creative juices are so stimulated. When the spa is finished, these energized, creatively enhanced guppies return to the same dirty water. Strain as they might with their rejuvenated creative powers, they are beaten back by the daily feeding regime which never alters. They cannot get past the Save the Plants Committee or the Waste Removal Union procedures, so their new ideas get shot down at once. They try escalating their ideas to the angel fish that hover around the treasure chest, but these angels are too busy worrying about purification and aeration production to pay any attention. Plus there are rumors that this tank is soon to merge with a larger tank and everyone is scrambling, trying to gain some information about the kind of fish they will meet, whether or not the other tank is cleaner, and which fish will not make the transfer, because everyone knows when you merge tanks, some fish get caught in the transfer net.

As the guppies get dirty again amid the rumors and the tank’s decreasing visibility, communication gets clogged, trust in the ecosystem erodes, and ideation is numbed by the humdrum of being back in the same old water.

Leading innovation is about cleaning the tank, not the fish.

Bryn Meredith is the President of Bluepoint Leadership Development Canada and can be reached at (905) 469-6526 or [email protected].

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