Leadership: creating a culture of innovation

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Are you fully prepared to do what it takes to lead a culture of innovation within your organisation? If so, you need to be the change you want to see. 

I admit you’ve served your time, worked your way up through the ranks, built up some leadership CPD points and your job title now contains the word 'leader', 'executive', or equivalent. What else do you need? Innovation here we come!

Forgive me for being sceptical, but I have to ask the question again; are you really ready to build and lead a culture of innovation? We know the incentive is there.  

“Innovative businesses grow twice as fast as non-innovators and they are also less likely to fail”, or so says a report from the government's Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, but from our work with a range of organisations we also know that although the spirit is willing, there is a widespread lack of understanding about the steps required to move organisational culture from a traditional model to one which embraces innovation.

To understand that, let’s take a quick look at what sits at the heart of a culture of innovation. In essence, whilst invention is the process of introducing something new or different, innovators do so in order to solve a genuine problem, add real value to the customer and drive growth for the creator.

This moves innovation away from being the preserve of the few and into an organisation wide culture change. In the process outgoing silos, process driven hierarchies and need-to-know training, and in come collaboration and empowerment, sitting alongside a drive to promote employee engagement, in a holistic appreciation not only of the organisation but of the wider business and consumer sphere.

A new approach to leadership

As a result, leading for innovation is very different from the traditional model of leadership which has stood companies in good stead for decades. Among other things it requires:

  • Moving the approach from product to organisational delivery - looking at how people, processes, business model, attitudes and values can deliver solutions which will add to the customer experience.
  • Changing the attitude to risk- in the process encouraging the exploration of potentially unconventional ideas and seeing failure as a learning point rather than a cause for censure.
  • Opening up to collaboration - being prepared to draw customers, research institutions, suppliers and others into the mix in search of viable solutions.

None of this is going to happen unless the entire leadership team assimilates innovation beliefs and behaviours, attitudes and expectations into the fabric of their being. Quite simply, if it’s not on the top team’s agenda it’s not going to be in the culture.

More than that, if it’s not on personal agenda of every member of the top team then the actions of the few may thwart any move towards organisation-wide innovation.

Over the last few years we’ve seen the importance of innovation move steadily up the leadership spectrum. For example, a Boston Consulting Group survey concluded that 79% of respondents ranked innovation as a top three priority.

Wanting innovation is one thing, delivering an innovation culture is quite another. So much so that a Wazoku Everyday Innovation Report revealed that 48% of UK employees don’t believe that innovation is embedded within the leadership team and 72% of employees have no understanding of what innovation means to their employer.

Building key leadership skills

Apart from building personal acceptance, what are the key leadership traits involved in leading a culture of innovation?

In truth there is no one size fits all answer but it’s a fair bet that those who successfully lead for innovation will demonstrate the following qualities and characteristics:

Communication skills

Great innovators are great communicators. They have to be! After all, when you are collaborating across the organisation and with third parties your communication skills could be the difference between focused delivery and scattergun anarchy.

Whether communicating verbally or electronically good communicators aim to be clear, concise, consistent, continuous and congruent.

Good communicators are also good listeners.

In other words, you start by being clear in your own mind about the message which you are communicating, you keep messages short and to the point, you engender trust through providing a consistent message and you do so in a regular and ongoing manner which helps to build acceptance and understanding.

More importantly, whatever the message, you deliver it in an authentic manner and in line with your normal style.

Good communicators are also good listeners and it is equally important that the senior team works on building listening and comprehension skills. This not only will help to boost employee engagement as people really feel that you care about what they are doing, it will also help to ensure that innovative solutions are not discarded due to lack of understanding.

Collaboration skills

If you are really serious about delivering genuine solutions then you have to be prepared to collaborate with anyone and any organisation.

Whether they are your strongest competitor or operating in a completely different field, whether they are academics or hands-on developers, if they can help you to provide genuine solutions then you should invite them to the party.

Some of these will have completely different outlooks and organisational cultures to yours, highlighting the importance of good communicating skills in order to develop and deliver understanding.

True collaboration and cooperation also requires leaders to set aside feelings of self importance and one-upmanship and to work as an equal alongside anyone from any organisation.

Empowerment and trust

Your people are never going to truly believe in the innovation model until you are able to create the conditions which enable them feel free to act and experiment.

As leaders, this requires you to demonstrate empowering and trusting attitudes at every turn. Dictatorial ‘do this because I say so’ instructions become things of the past as you work with your people to build their skills, their knowledge base and an open and questioning mindset.

Like it or not, your people take their lead from you.

We cannot over emphasise the importance of being the change if you want to lead the change. Like it or not, your people take their lead from you and no matter what you say, unless you demonstrate and promote innovative behaviours in your every action and decision then you will never get your people to follow.

Building a culture of innovation within an organisation is not rocket science but it does require wholehearted commitment to change.

So I ask again, are you really ready to change your beliefs and behaviours, your attitude and outlook? Unless and until you are, any attempt to instil an innovative mindset within your culture is doomed to failure.

Looking for more leadership advice? Read Why nurturing a love of learning will future-proof your organisation.

About Jo Geraghty

Jo Geraghty

Formerly head of HR for Goldman Sachs France and Switzerland and with 16 years experience working in change management for various investment banks across the globe, Jo Geraghty brings a wealth of practitioner experience to change projects. She is co-author of the book “Building a Culture of Innovation” which was published by Kogan Page on 3rd December 2015 and which has been shortlisted for the CMI Management Book of the Year award 2016.

With a global reputation as an expert in building high performance cultures, Jo specializes in working with CEOs and leadership teams of global organisations, SMEs and fast growing businesses; helping to deliver sustainable performance improvements through successful organisational culture change and employee engagement initiatives. 

Jo is also a speaker on high-performance leadership and organizational culture and a regular guest lecturer at several of the UKs leading business schools. She was recognised in the 2017 Smith & Williamson Power 100 index for her work to boost productivity through positive company culture.

Jo can be contacted via the Culture Consultancy website http://www.cultureconsultancy.com/

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