Innovation is a component of both successful leadership and emotional intelligence. In this week’s blog we’ll explore the different components that foster innovative leadership and the value they have to offer anyone practicing leadership.
Successful leaders realize something important; they don’t know it all. This self-awareness means a successful leader is open to not only hearing from other people (who may have a different point of view or opinions), but seeking them out and listening – there is an element of flexibility here. This practice provides valuable insights and brings forward new and interesting ideas, laying the foundation for valuable products and services (or internal processes that save money, etc.). Even if an idea isn’t a fit today, in soliciting ideas in a tangible way they become available for others to think about, or to build on, and one of those ideas may possibly supply the next “big thing” for your organization. You never know where ideas will go, but if they are silenced within your organization they cannot contribute, or worse, they may walk over to your competition (who is listening). One of the best things about ideas is that they are free – fostering innovative thinking and idea generation does not have an immediate cost attached to it, so why wouldn’t you want to encourage your employees to do this?
You also need a measure of optimism to foster a contributive level of innovation. If the glass is always half-empty (even if the perception is that management sees the glass as half-empty) then nothing gets off the ground. We know what this sounds like in a workplace “that is too complex…we’d have to change X and Y…we don’t have the funding in the current budget…”. As a leader, checking in to see if this is this present in your organization is an important part of supporting innovation. How open-minded are you? Your leadership team? Your employees? While optimism is a great thing to have as a leader (and as an individual), it also needs to be present in workplace culture. Successful leaders foster this level of optimism within their organizations because optimistic companies succeed. Optimism is as simple as providing enough interest in the ideas brought forward to ask an employee (or group of employees) to elaborate on it, so there is a “check” in their thinking and also the possibility of a tangible well-thought out idea at the end. You probably don’t have room in your current budget to develop it in its unproven, infantile state. Asking someone to put effort into articulating it from a business perspective not only builds employee capabilities but provides more data to prove a business case for future funding (or helping your employee to see for themselves what a well thought out idea looks like – there is a learning curve providing great development opportunities). Apply this to your own idea generation as well.
Even when you are listening to great ideas/opinions/approaches they only breathe life when implemented and that takes further innovation and problem solving skills. Being realistic in what it takes to implement new ideas is valuable; the concept of “managed risk” is key. Beyond ensuring you are being realistic about the activities you pursue is also being mindful about what you learn along the way. Many of us have worked in organizations that decided to pursue innovation, sometimes in a very measurable way, but if an initiative didn’t produce the intended result the whole thing got buried…deep. Whatever lessons were learned along the way inclined towards “we won’t do that again” rather than looking at it objectively – failure teaches us more then success. What have your company’s failures brought to the table? If you look closely you’ll see those lessons encoded in your organizational DNA. Managed risk doesn’t mean failure proof, nor should it. It means as long as your organization is learning something while being mindful of the resources going into a project, it is probably worth considering.
Managed risk is a practice that requires a measure of independence on the part of the people pursuing it and the need to be assertive in framing (and explaining) the benefits of the pursuit. In today’s markets margin is king. Even companies in start-up mode need to show they can reach profitability quickly; more then ever projects are scrutinized and measured. As a leader you need to go out on a limb, and listen carefully. When you have a real champion in your organization for something (in particular an innovative idea) she/he will be assertive, and you will also need to be assertive in your support of the initiative, especially in the face of doubters and naysayers. When you believe something is worth the risk, others will buy in.
Also present in innovation is a measure of self-actualization - the pinnacle of achievement for anyone in life (according to Maslow); seeing a successful initiative through from incubation to maturity and knowing it was your insight and support that lead to it is incredibly rewarding. If along the way there were a few failures and hiccups then they were the supporting factors that contributed to projects that make it. Not every leader has what it takes to foster and support innovation, but this is present in the leadership capabilities of those leaders we would say are “successful”. What innovative ideas are you going to foster today?