Innovation through creative leadership

Innovation is connected to inspiration. That is a statistical fact. Frankly, we were a bit surprised at the strong link between the two. We...

Innovation is connected to inspiration. That is a statistical fact. Frankly, we were a bit surprised at the strong link between the two. We never would have predicted it. But in every organization that we studied, this factor jumped out. There is obviously something about a leader’s encouraging innovation that has an extremely powerful impact on people. People are jazzed by the opportunity to participate in new and exciting activities.

What the leader did was create not only an environment in which people felt free to bring in fresh ideas, but, even better, an environment in which injecting new points of view was both strongly encouraged and expected.

Many of us have encountered the leader who finds a variety of reasons to resist any new ideas that come from someone else. They’ve been jokingly described as “abominable no-men.” (We quickly acknowledge that some women deserve that description as well.) In some cases, it is because the leader likes things just as they are now. Much like the dread of buying a new pair of shoes that will be stiff and uncomfortable and require giving up the comfort of a well-broken-in older pair, the contemplation of new processes, new products, or new people can be disquieting.

creative leadership

In other cases, this attitude appears to be driven by pride or arrogance. The logic (or illogic) trail goes something like this:
I’m the boss. Good ideas should come from me. I didn’t think of it, so therefore it can’t be a good idea. Worse yet, if I accept a subordinate’s idea, someone in the organization might think my subordinate should be the boss. That is even more unacceptable, so obviously I cannot accept this idea.

Whatever the reason, leaders who resist ideas that don’t come from themselves are all too prevalent in organizations.


A Dynamic Culture and Environment

Consider two working environments.

The first is extremely static. Things don’t ever appear to change. The paint on the walls never changes. The office furniture never changes. The way paperwork is processed is identical to the way it was processed five years ago. People come in exactly on time, and they leave exactly on time. There are no sounds of laughter in the halls. Instead, the tone feels like a library of yesteryear. Everything is businesslike and buttoned-down. People appear to hibernate in their cubicles. The manager stays in her office, and staff members occasionally go in to discuss some matter they feel they can’t decide alone.

The second environment is virtually the opposite. The new manager walks around the office and frequently asks about ways to do things better. Nothing seems off limits. He gives positive reinforcement for what is happening, and periodically asks, “Why do we need this form?” “What’s the reason for this procedure?” “Have you considered any other ways of tracking customer usage of this product?” The tone of these questions is true curiosity, never accusatory. As project teams are created, office furniture is moved around, and people end up in new offices or cubicles in order to be nearer the people they work with. Several informal discussions take place, occasionally punctuated with loud laughter. Offices are decorated with personal objects and pictures obviously drawn by the employees’ children. There is a tangible feeling of excitement that permeates people’s activities.

In which environment would you be more inspired? (Yes, we agree. That’s almost a silly question.) The climate in which change is encouraged, innovation is expected, and things are not regimented is far more inspiring to nearly all of us.

The takeaway for the reader is a recommendation to perform a realistic, frank analysis of the climate of the organization you manage. Does it more closely resemble the first or the second? Before considering any specific techniques or steps to take, reflect on the culture that’s currently in place. If it has several elements of the first scenario, then take some steps to shake things up. Just as rearranging the furniture in your home or apartment serves to break the monotony, so little things make a big difference in an organization’s culture. Ask trusted leadership team development members for suggestions as to what changes would make the most difference.

Innovation Happening at All Levels and within All Functions

General Electric has long enjoyed a reputation for forward thinking. Under Jack Welch, it was recognized for its decision to become number one or number two in each market it served, and if that was not possible, Welch wanted GE to get out. Its reputation was one of a strong focus on delivering results and operational excellence. Welch expanded the organization through diversification into new industries. He acquired countless new operations and divested companies that did not meet his standards for producing a positive return.

Upon Welch’s retirement, Jeffrey Immelt was elected chairman and CEO of the firm. His emphasis shifted to a much stronger focus on innovation and internal growth. All executives were expected to come up with one or two bold initiatives that would grow their part of the business in a dramatic way. Small, incremental gains were to be augmented with serious innovation and growth plans that could have a significant impact on GE’s bottom line. Immelt paid close personal attention to the top 20 projects that were selected by the management team leadership skills to receive corporate support.

Innovation Becoming Embedded in the Systems

When the right environment is created and combined with the expectation that everyone will contribute to the innovation process, then a steady stream of good ideas for new products, services, marketing techniques, and ways to better manage the business come forth on a regular basis.

One of the most innovative organizations that many of us frequently encounter is a California company, OXO, that produces innovative kitchen utensils.Regina Schrambling wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Ever since Oxo came out with a Good Grips vegetable peeler in 1990 that changed the way America prepped mashed potatoes, the company has become so known for its hyper-clever takes on everyday things that the wow factor should be increasingly difficult to come by.”  Visitors to the company’s home office observe 40 employees dwelling on the details of various kitchen gadgets. The key to their success is that they really “sweat the small stuff.” Every kitchen utensil is fair game for radical improvement. This all began when the founder, Sam Farber, modified some kitchen utensils for his wife, who suffered from arthritis. Now teams work for years trying to perfect a new product, and after it is released, they immediately begin analyzing what is wrong with it and how it could be improved. A new design is never good enough and is never off-limits for further improvement. Over 500 products have been OXOized since those early days of the swivel peeler. It now comes in multiple styles, and one even has a replaceable blade.

Aim Is High and Not Satisfied with Tiny Steps

OXO is a good example of a focus on innovation that is not content with mere line extensions for old products or “me-too” products that copy a competitor. When the right climate is created, there are no restrictions on the boldness or scope of the proposed innovation. It could be a new market to pursue, a new product line to invest in, a better way to outflank a competitor, or a better way to go to market.


Determine If You Personally Have a Yes or a No Approach to New Ideas

You may be surprised at what you discover. Leaders have a huge impact on the amount of innovation that occurs within their group. But this impact can be subtle. It is usually a summation of little things, no one of which blatantly stands out. Often leaders’ behavior unwittingly closes down creativity and innovation.

There’s a large number of leaders for whom the default answer to any suggestion is no. The first step we propose is that you collect some data from your subordinates about your impact on their attempts at innovation. After reading the written comments on 360-degree feedback instruments for thousands of leaders, it is striking to see the number who are seen as rejecting any idea that is not their own.

Discovering your receptiveness to new ideas requires asking your people some direct questions, either as a group or one on one. You can ask questions like these:
  • “Do I ever say or do things that discourage people from proposing new ideas?”
  • “Have you ever seen me react in a way that suggested that I wasn’t eager to take a risk or try some new approach?”
  • “To what degree do you think I want to get ideas from the group about new products or better ways we could work?”
While reflection and introspection may help, nothing compares to your asking people some probing questions and then patiently listening to the answers. This first step is important because many leaders who think they are open to new ideas are not seen that way by their subordinates. We virtually never see leaders describe themselves as rejecting ideas from their subordinates, but the subordinates see it quite differently.

One leader who was somewhat aware of his behavior in this regard was a senior executive in a large multinational bank. He was responsible for all the organization’s information systems and procedures. On a 360-degree feedback instrument, his subordinates gave him extremely low scores regarding his willingness to support innovation and his overall receptivity to new ideas. When we discussed this fact with him, his reply was: “My job is to keep this place from blowing up. Any change someone proposes has that potential. So my answer to any suggestion is always no. Then I’ll ponder it some more, and if the person is really persistent, I may think about it and try it out in a very limited way.”

You had to respect and admire this executive’s feeling of responsibility for the welfare of the firm. But by his own assessment, his function, and therefore the entire bank, hadn’t kept up with some of the innovations that competitors had embraced. This put the bank at some competitive disadvantage. There was a serious morale problem among those who reported to him. Turnover was unusually high. We talked about what would happen in a relatively short time when he retired.

We suggested, “What if you first pointed out all the good things about an idea that is proposed to you. Then, after letting the person know that you appreciate his initiative and his having thought about ways to improve things, you might ask him if he sees any potential downsides or dangers to his proposal. After he’s given his answers, by all means add any important ones that you think he’s missed. Then ask him whether, on balance, this still seems like a good idea. Maybe ask if he can refine his proposal to eliminate the risks and preserve its positive aspects. There are clearly ways to protect the company and, at the same time, to inspire and motivate your colleagues by encouraging innovation and risk taking.” Shortly hereafter he retired. His legacy was one of having done good things, but it fell short of what it could have been had he been more receptive to the ideas that bubbled up from a talented staff.

This doesn’t mean that ideas and suggestions should not be turned down. If they don’t make sense, they should be rejected. But some managers automatically say no unless there is overwhelming evidence and pressure to say yes. We submit that this is the wrong default answer to people who have taken the time to think about a better way of doing things.

Remove the Barriers

Ask your subordinates what is standing in the way of their making suggestions and proposing new and better ways to get work done. You’ll discover, in all likelihood, some things you hadn’t imagined. Excessive paperwork and approvals may be one thing that’s getting in the way. The lack of a clear channel by which to get new ideas considered may be another. Maybe the culture of the organization is resistant to new suggestions. Whatever you discover to be the barriers, take aim at them. Banish the bureaucracy that gets in the way.

Another skill that the inspiring leader possesses is one of internal marketing. Such a leader is skilled at helping others to see the problem or issue and how what is being proposed will solve that problem. The impact of a change is rarely confined to one department or group. Invariably the change spills over to other areas. Their agreement is required if this change is to succeed. This requires the leader’s being perceived as working for the welfare of the entire
organization, not just for something that will primarily benefit the leader’s group.

Remove potential barriers. Because change usually affects many other groups, it is extremely important to identify the most likely barriers standing in the way of this change. Change efforts succeed when those responsible have taken the time to anticipate some of the key barriers and hurdles to making the change happen.

Open the Door

Overtly encourage innovation. Send a clear signal that you are receptive to innovative ideas. Frequently ask, “Is there a better way to get this done?” “How long has it been since anyone dissected this process to see if it can be streamlined?” In addition, borrow an idea from Jeffrey Immelt’s playbook. Ask the people in your organization to come up with one or two really bold ideas that have the potential to transform the business. That means everyone.

Another reason that leaders sometimes resist innovation, we fear, goes back to the fundamental levels of respect that senior people have for those at lower levels. Some senior people assume that being promoted to a higher level equates to superior abilities, including a much higher IQ. Often, there is a generally higher level of education the higher in the organization you go. But in today’s organization, our observation is that there are usually some extremely bright and well-educated people at lower levels. When senior people dismiss ideas from people at lower levels on the basis of some assumed superiority of the people at the top, this causes terrific ideas to be ignored. Worse yet, the leaders’ not paying attention is very uninspiring to these people.

Some leaders resist innovation and ideas because they believe that good ideas largely come from management. We earlier noted that this is simply not the case. But many leaders hang on to the mistaken belief that Jack Welch described as thinking that the law of gravity applied to ideas. Some leaders believe that good ideas start at a high level and gently fall down to the layers below. One of Clayton Christensen’s contributions from his research on innovation was that this idea was a complete fallacy. The best leaders stayed attuned to the ideas that bubbled up from below, identified those with the greatest merit, and then institutionalized them. This pattern can be identified in every successful organization and in most successful new products, whether it is Postit notes or Intel’s decision to manufacture microprocessors rather than transistors. (In hindsight, the decision to manufacture microprocessors and abandon the manufacture of transistors was an extremely good one. There are now more transistors produced each year than there are grains of rice, and the price per transistor is less than that of each grain of rice.)

In a large midwestern plant, the new management decided to transfer much more of the decision making and control to teams at the lowest level of the plant. After these changes were implemented, one of the workers went home to visit his father, who had worked in that same plant for nearly all of his working life. As the son described the innovative decisions that the employees were now making, including new systems for ordering materials and scheduling production runs, Internet programs for interacting with suppliers, and regular meetings to talk with customers, his father’s eyes welled up with tears. He said, “I told ’em. We knew how to run that plant better than they did. We could have done all those things. If only we’d had the chance.”

We wish those days were all in the past. But they are not. We regularly see senior management teams who, from our vantage point, seriously underestimate the capability of the group below them. That often comes from having minimal interaction with the people in that group. It also arises from not putting them in roles where they can be tested and prove that they can perform.

On more than one occasion, we have worked with a senior team as its members participated in a rather challenging business simulation as part of their leadership development goals process. The senior team had often been the pilot group for the organization, and it was followed in this development process by other teams that reported to it. These second groups usually perform well, sometimes better than their bosses. That was an important eye-opener and helped to create even greater confidence on the part of the senior team in their successors.

Create Forums in Which Innovative Ideas Can Be Discussed and Recognized

Set up forums in which innovative ideas can be explored, fully understood, and finally evaluated. Give positive reinforcement not only to the ideas that are accepted, but also to those that were tabled or turned down.

Some visionary leadership members mistakenly think that the only innovative ideas that deserve public acknowledgment and positive acclaim are those that are accepted and put into action. This is a mistake. Innovative ideas get put on the back burner for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with the creator or the quality of the idea. It may be a matter of timing, funding, other projects that are extremely similar, or a variety of other reasons.

Our research shows clearly that inspiring leaders champion new projects and programs. The key here is that the leader who inspires is willing to take the initiative to get things started. Here are some examples of what this leader says or does:
  • “How about figuring out a better process for customizing our products for our key clients?”
  • “I want to change the format of our weekly meeting, and would like your ideas. I’m sensing that it could be a lot better than it is.”
  • “The software that we’re using to manage our manufacturing process lacks some functionality that I’d like to have. How would you feel about searching for some better alternatives and coming back with some recommendations?”
  • “We’ve been selling the same version of this product for years. We’ve heard many recommendations for ways to upgrade it, and we’ve all worried about the time and money it will cost, but we’re not providing the best product that we know how to produce. The time has come, in my opinion, for us to bite the bullet and make the changes. Who agrees with that?”
Organizations can be like the plate spinner’s plate. As time passes, the plate revolves increasingly slowly. Then it begins to wobble. It needs a burst of energy to get it back spinning rapidly and horizontally. Good leadership skills and energy is often required to get things started.

Engage key stakeholders. One powerful technique on how to be a good leader can be to use to make all this happen is to reach out to the key stakeholders who will be involved. The leader then floods other stakeholders with the information they’ll need if they are to fully understand what is being proposed. The reasons for the proposed change are made clear. The effective leader helps key stakeholders see why this is in the best interests of the entire organization and the other surrounding groups that will be affected.

Set Up Processes That Support Innovation

Much has been published about the innovation process. Some of the most useful data come from design firms such as IDEO, which has published a great deal about the techniques it uses in the innovation process. These begin with a variety of ways to observe how customers use a product and the experience they are currently having. The techniques include in-depth interviews, shadowing customers, and photographing customers using the product. The second step is an intensive idea-generating meeting to brainstorm possibilities. The third step is a rapid prototyping phase in which mock-ups of either a product or a proposed service are made. These mock-ups are then tested in a variety of ways. After that comes a refining process in which the ideas are polished, new prototypes are created, and agreement is reached on a new design. Finally comes the implementation stage, in which a multidisciplinary approach is taken to plan and execute the implementation. IDEO’s enormous success attests to the payoff from following this process rigorously.

Others are also pushing the boundaries of the innovation process. One of the more interesting comes from the work of a Russian scientist, Genrich Altshuller. His work is referred to as TRIZ, an acronym for the Russian phrase “theory of solving inventive problems” or “theory of inventive problem solving.”

Today, TRIZ is a methodology, tool set, knowledge base, and model-based technology for generating innovative ideas and solutions for problem solving. TRIZ provides tools and methods for use in problem formulation, system analysis, failure analysis, and patterns of system evolution (both “as-is” and “could be”). TRIZ, in contrast to techniques such as brainstorming (which is based on random idea generation), aims to create an algorithmic approach to the invention of new systems, and the refinement of old systems. . . .

Altshuller was employed to inspect invention proposals, help document them, and help others to invent. By 1969 he [had] reviewed about 40,000 patent abstracts in order to find out in what way the innovation had taken place. He eventually developed 40 Principles of Invention, several Laws of Technical Systems Evolution, the concepts of technical and physical contradictions that creative leadership inventions resolve, the concept of Ideality of a system and numerous other theoretical and practical approaches; together, this extensive work represents a unique contribution to the development of creativity and inventive problem-solving.”

One big lesson that emerges from the work of such groups is that innovation requires a process. Indeed, that process will nearly always look and feel very different from traditional processes embedded in organizations.

Shower Positive Attention on New Ideas

Never begin by enumerating all the downsides and potential problems. Be optimistic. New ideas are fragile. They are like tiny plants that poke its way up through the soil. Rough handling at this point can easily kill them, and lots of great ideas have been squashed at this stage.

For more than a decade, one of the authors worked in a pharmaceutical company. A senior executive in research, Ralph Dorfman, played a unique role in that organization. Whenever someone had a new idea for an innovative research project, she would go to Ralph. He was a respected scientist with a good deal of experience in research. But the spectrum of research being conducted ranged from molecular biology to chemistry and from biology to pharmaceutical science, with clinical medicine added on. Clearly Ralph was not the expert in all of these areas. But he possessed one quality that caused other people from virtually every area to come to spend time with him. He nurtured new ideas. He searched for the positive elements of everyone’s brainstorm. By nature he was cheerful, always smiling and with a cherubic manner. His instinct was never to find fault and focus on the downsides, but to see the good and the potential in every new idea. One might assume that this was an observation that his colleagues would make years later as they reflected on the forces that made creativity possible. In Ralph’s case, however, even at the time it was occurring, the scientists recognized what a valuable role he was playing in nurturing new ideas.

Make a Hobby of Trend Spotting

Encourage your group to stay out in front by spotting trends early. One of the behaviors of people with leadership characteristics who inspire is their ability and willingness to take an “eagle-eye view” of what’s happening in their industry and to pick up on new trends at a very beginning stage. A good staff meeting topic is to ask about any trends employees are picking up as they talk with customers, industry experts, suppliers, and competitors and from what they are reading. The obvious next step is to determine what impact that trend could have on your business, or how you should best respond to it.

Visit Customers

Innovative products and services frequently originate from tips and suggestions from customers. Often customers will graciously toss these suggestions to you. But there is also great power in asking your customers some probing questions point-blank:
  • “What would you like our product (service) to do that it doesn’t do at the current time?”
  • “Do you ever hear people in your organization talk about what they ‘wish they had’ in the realm of the work that we do?”
  • “Would you mind if we spent some time talking to the direct users of our products (services) to hear from them firsthand the ideas for fine-tuning it that they might have?”
Consider the rapid way in which an entire industry can be changed by a new idea. In 1989 Bob Plath, an airline pilot, was tired of carrying his luggage through the airport. He had the idea of combining a suitcase with a wheeled base. The first patent on a zippered suitcase with wheels and a telescoping handle was granted in June of 1990. Now more than 85 percent of travelers are using some version of a wheeled suitcase. Noticing that trend early could have spelled the difference between surviving and failing in the luggage industry.

Some industries are fortunate to have extremely long product life cycles. But that number is shrinking all the time. Product life cycles are shortening. The most effective leadership traits is to constantly scan their environment for subtle changes that may signal an important change. At the same time, they encourage all their colleagues to do the same.

One of the leadership communication skills the inspirational leader needs to develop is to recognize when change is needed. Our research showed that those leaders who excelled at inspiration were far more adept at recognizing when the time had come for change to be implemented. It wasn’t clear whether they were just more attuned to their environment or whether they were fundamentally more restless.

Many of us have had the experience of living in a home or apartment for a few years. Then we have planned to have some company over or planned a party at our home. This made us look at our rooms with a more critical eye. There were spots on the carpet. The furniture was faded and frayed. The paint had some bad chips, and there was some water damage on the ceiling. Suddenly we saw our living space through a new lens. It triggered us to take some action. But it took some impending event to cause us to assess our living space objectively.

Create Events Focused on Innovation

There is great value in scheduling an off-site meeting for a team, away from the normal work environment, where the focus is exclusively on thinking about new products, new services, better methods of production, new ways to market, paths to better customer service, fresh approaches to pricing your products, and ways of improving the morale of the team. Having an outsider serve as facilitator of the meeting frees the leadership communication to be an active participant, without the necessity of managing the group’s process. That function can be temporarily delegated to the outside facilitator.

Have the Courage to Make Big Changes

Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen helped to catapult the issue of innovation to the forefront by publishing The Innovator’s Dilemma, which was followed by a later volume, The Innovator’s Solution. Christensen achieved great notoriety through his analysis of how successful organizations must often launch products and services that will destroy their current offerings and how difficult and counterintuitive that is. His research showed that if they did not do it, others would, and then they would be in even greater difficulty. He contended that it was far better for a firm to take risks by launching products that might replace its current offerings than to stand by and have others cannibalize its market.

Making big changes requires courage. Recognizing that there is a need for change is obviously the first step, but change usually affects several people and often other departments. Unless there is external pressure on the leadership characteristics list to make some change, it is most often easier to let things continue as they are. But, as someone observed, “to follow the course of least resistance makes men and rivers crooked.” The willpower to initiate change often begins with the leadership development programs.

We don’t agree with the old saying that people resist change. It depends. Many people deliberately seek new experiences in specific parts of their life. They travel to new places. They take up new hobbies. They read new books. Comfort with change probably has a lot to do with how much control people feel they have.

Most of us resist having things done “to” us, especially if we lack control and if the outcomes are ambiguous or potentially damaging. So, if I hear that there will be a major reorganization in my work group, and if I have no knowledge of what is contemplated, it’s probable that I’ll be very resistant to the idea of that change.


One of the most distinguished psychologists living has founded a movement known as Positive Psychology. It was meant to rebut the enormous preoccupation that psychology had with the darker sides of human nature. Martin Seligman’s work has had a profound impact on psychology. He resurrected the concept of character as a driving force in understanding individuals. With the help of equally distinguished colleagues, he researched the basic virtues and human strengths that permeate our culture. The six virtues they identified were ones that they found to be incorporated in all the major religious and philosophical traditions. Then, in order to have more workable and operational definitions of human character, they proceeded to identify 24 strengths that again seemed to cut across all cultures and societies.

Three of these strengths help to explain why innovation and risk taking would be inspiring to their recipients.

  1. Curiosity/interest in the world. They defined this as “openness to new experience and flexibility about matters that do not fit one’s preconceptions.” “Curious people do not simply tolerate ambiguity; they like it.”
  2. Hope/optimism/future mindedness. This strength represents a positive attitude toward the future, expecting that good things will happen to you, provided you work hard, and emphasizing the importance of planning for the future.
  3. Ingenuity/originality/practical intelligence/street smarts. The researchers defined this as a desire to find novel behavior to reach leadership goals. People who excel at this are not content with acting in a conventional way.
Our conclusion is that the desire to innovate and take risks is deeply embedded into our fundamental character. When it is denied, we feel great frustration and loss. When it is enabled, we feel greatly fulfilled and energized. The person with leadership qualities who does not allow and encourage innovation and risk taking obviously throws a wet blanket over the work group, whereas the leader who does the opposite unleashes the bottled-up energy and enthusiasm that exists within all of us.



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Thought Leadership Zen: Innovation through creative leadership
Innovation through creative leadership
Thought Leadership Zen
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