In the past year, innovation has risen to the top of the business agenda. With the recession out of the way, corporations are refocusing on looking for new ways to grow. It seems not a day goes by that the major media writes (or broadcasts) stories in innovation. And, it has become more than just an imperative for our corporations, it has become a matter of national pride—or not. Some research shows that the U.S is losing its innovative edge to emerging economies. China, for example, is pouring a ton of state funds into programs, investments, and technology that foster innovation. Just coming back from Singapore in mid-November, I read an article in The Straits Times where the CEO of IDEO, a leading innovation consulting firm, blames the lack of Singapore’s progress on risk-aversion leadership. He felt that the emphasis on having KPI’s (Key Performance Indicators) for just about everything was taking “the breath out of innovation”.
The question we want to address here is the role of leadership in innovation. In speaking on the topic around the world, I often ask audiences if the role of leadership is to innovate. The answer is usually no, but to foster a culture of innovation. They are partially wrong. It’s hard to imagine an organization with a team of leaders who are innovateless (a new word!). Imagine Apple without Steve Jobs. I just interviewed Carlos Goshen, Nissan’s CEO. He is leading the charge on zero emission technology.
But they are right that innovation cannot flourish without leaders creating the conditions to make it happen. From 3-M sticky pads to Gillett’s Five Blade shaving system, most new ideas do not originate from the top. The type of leader who can create the right environment is part “personality”. Risk aversion, lack of receptivity to feedback, and arrogance are not the type of personality patterns we need for innovation leaders. However, our belief is that it also can be a skill. Innovation leaders must inspire curiosity, constantly challenge the status quo, create the freedom to explore and experiment, and finally help drive the execution of the most promising new ideas.
In a new research report, “Creating the Conditions for Sustainable Innovation,” (note from Dan: it's a big file, so you can also skim the executive summary here) we recently asked 513 leaders around the world, to rate their own skill level on 20 separate innovation behaviors. If you believe these leaders, we have nothing to worry about. The majority of leaders feel they are darn good at:
• Urging their employees to stay close to their customers
• Being open to new ideas from their employees
• Frequently sponsor brainstorming activities with their teams
• Help employees learn from mistakes and failures.
But before we get too happy, a totally different picture is painted when we ask 514 employees the very same questions about their leaders. In almost every one of the 20 items there is a 20-30% agreement gap between leaders and employees. In other words, the majority of employees feel their leaders are not doing a very good job at all at inspiring a culture of innovation.
There is a happy ending to this story. While it can be tricky, but not impossible, to teach leaders to be more innovative, it is probable we can develop the skills to make them innovation culture changers. We can teach leaders how to help their employees learn from mistakes. We can teach leaders a whole range of techniques to foster generation and evaluation of new ideas. We can teach leaders how they reinforce and recognize bottom-up innovation. If corporation can get every leader using these skills their innovation hit rate will sky rocket. And, if we can get every leader in our respective economies using these skills, it will likely be a lasting source of national competitive advantage.
Rich Wellins, Ph.D. is senior vice president of Development Dimensions International (DDI), and is an expert on leadership development, employee engagement and talent management. He is responsible for launching DDI’s new products and services, leading DDI’s Center for Applied Behavioral Research (CABER) and its major research projects and developing and executing DDI’s global marketing strategy.