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Why do leaders stifle innovation, when we need to evolve?

This article was first published in HR News.

Do you fear failure? If you're honest with yourself, do you often choose to do something that's been pretty much tried-and-tested, rather than the radically different? Don't worry, you're only human – most high achievers have an in-built dislike of making mistakes.

While understandable, leaders' psychological discomfort around innovation is holding organisations back in this fast-paced, exponentially digitalised world where we have no choice but to move with the times.

PA Consulting Group research found that although 65% of executives say their organisations will disappear if they don't innovate, 80% still admit to pushing their people into conformity, stifling the exact creativity they need (Innovation Matters, PA Consulting Group 2017).

Time and time again we've seen that culture follows the leader's example, yet, as PA's research showed, 43% of executives think their leaders are ignoring opportunities to disrupt the market through innovation.

So, the question is what leaders can do to foster a culture of real innovation, the kind which ripples through their organisation and becomes 'the way things are done around there'. Three actions of innovation leaders make the difference: 

Remove innovation blockers

When there's something new on the business agenda it's easy start creating plans that require significant investment to implement. Hiring a Head of Innovation or investing in innovation days will support your innovation agenda, even if it only reinforces the message that it is important to your business.

What often gets overlooked, however, is what needs to be removed to enable this culture. As a simple example, removing unnecessary steps in a business case process will allow prototype projects to be signed off more quickly. Or removing that bit of the performance framework which (in real terms) only rewards people for taking conservative risks. Some organisations even change people in key decision making roles who don't have the right mindset. To foster an innovation culture, leaders should consider not only what will drive it, but also how to remove the blockers.

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Inspire everyone to support innovation, regardless of their role

Not everyone needs to be an innovator. Some people's brains don't naturally work that way and thank goodness for that! You should value them immensely – they're often the ones who make sure important rules are followed. That said, to build a culture of innovation you still need them to support it, which may require them to allow others the trust and freedom to be creative, or to think about eliminating arduous processes.

The best innovation leaders help everyone in the organisation to understand why it's fundamental to their collective success, regardless of role.  As a starting point, leaders should identify individuals or groups who may be more difficult to turn around and find ways to engage them with innovation aspirations. 

Actively encourage people to share ideas

Here's a familiar story. A year ago a company launched a successful new service. Customer uptake and feedback has been strong, and the CEO is pretty darn pleased. You meet a member of the management team – quite a shy, introverted person – who mentions he actually came up with that idea two years ago. He plugged it a few times but no one listened, so decided it was rubbish and gave up.

Someone else came up with it later, boldly pitched it and everyone got excited.

The lesson here is that leaders should encourage people to share their ideas with confidence, safe in the knowledge that the simple fact they've come forward is valued in itself. They should listen with keen curiosity, keeping their ears open to new ideas instead of shutting them down. Some great examples of this can be found in the Nordics, where PA found an impressive 96% of organisations reward their people for their contribution to innovation.

Innovation cultures are enabled by curious leaders with the ability to add inspiration and remove these barriers. How does your organisation measure up?

Rachael Martin is a people and talent expert at PA Consulting Group

Contact the people and talent team


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