To Boost Innovation, Pull the Leadership Lever


My friend was frazzled. She had joined a large, consumer-facing organization, where she was immersed in the exciting work of redesigning the customer journey map. But she faced a major obstacle. Line managers were accustomed to doing business the old way. They knew how to get things done in that environment.  They felt comfortable with leading and managing outcomes. How could she help these managers through the trouble and emotional turmoil of learning something new even as they continued to deliver on significant business expectations?

Line managers often struggle to execute the wonderful new products and solutions generated by design thinking. These managers are accustomed to managing workflow compliance, not innovation. They must muster considerable courage and flexibility in order to work with new processes and systems. If the broader culture doesn’t support innovation—if it actively discourages rupture with conventional wisdom and processes—execution becomes that much harder.

Companies seeking to innovate faster must build vibrant, energetic cultures that are more open to and accepting of innovation. But how? One strategy is to remake organizational processes and systems. Another, equally important approach is to craft leadership behaviors that support your desired culture. Such behavior redesign typically entails four steps:

  1. Consider how key leadership behaviors currently affect employees’ experience. Are leaders behaving in ways that support innovation? Or do their actions send a different message?
  2. Identify opportunities for improving the employee experience as it pertains to innovation. For instance, do people understand innovation’s place in their job responsibilities as well as they might?
  3. Design a program of behavior change that will allow leaders to better support a culture of innovation among employees. Clarify leader expectations at every level and reward progress towards measurable behavior change and business impact.
  4. Execute the program.

In calibrating leadership behaviors, companies should strive to balance compliance with innovation. Consider how you’re spending your time. If you’re leading town halls, team meetings, or other gatherings, do you articulate the importance of compliance elements such as safety or quality while also urging people to look for areas to improve and evoking innovation’s strategic importance? Do you offer feedback, rewards, and recognition for the generation of new ideas, just as you would for meeting safety or quality benchmarks? Are you role modeling curiosity, open-mindedness, and creativity in your own work?

Some might regard behavioral change as a “soft” discipline, but in truth it’s a science as well as an art. It is important to quantify and measure behavior using advanced statistical methods. As CLG’s analyses have confirmed, leaders often think they’re supporting innovation, when they’re actually doing the exact opposite—reinforcing compliance with the current state and shutting down innovation.

A wise person observed that a hundred employees can hide in the shadow of a single, uncommitted leader. Don’t let such leaders abound in your company. With pressures to innovate intensifying every quarter, organizations can no longer tolerate the drag on innovation exerted by outdated cultures. Improving our cultures means pulling hard on the leadership lever, spurring and sustaining change from the top down.

By pursuing a methodical behavioral change program, leaders can learn how to squeeze faster, more substantive innovation from their teams, resulting in companies that not only imagine and create, but execute. 

For more on the topic of innovation, also see  Kicking Your Culture of Innovation into High Gear: A Generational Approach


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