Leadership – Allowing innovation to thrive is not difficult, but it takes guts!


The word innovation is probably used today more than ever in the history of human kind and in most cases it’s used incorrectly. Scott Berkin famously said that people in business don’t even understand what the word innovation means and that we should replace it with terms with more everyday direct meaning like “We want new ideas, We want better ideas or We want big changes”.

The simple definition of innovation is “a new method, idea or product”.

Everett Rogers Diffusion of Innovation makes the distinction that innovation needs to be adopted, otherwise it is just a creation. In my role as the Global Head of Knowledge it’s my job to encourage innovation in my team so that we test the norms of our industry and look at topics like the future of work. It’s one thing to be a futurist and just talk about it, which is fun but does not really carry any accountability, but it’s another to strive for innovative ideas and methods that can be delivered and used in the real world. Two things to note when striving for innovative thinking:

  1. It’s hard
  2. Most clients, companies or industries are risk averse to actually allowing innovation to thrive.

I was recently very lucky to be invited to present overseas to a respected large business that wanted to talk to us about an exciting idea we had. The brief was “to present something innovative that ideally had never been done before!” Tough challenge but we had been working on an exciting idea that would fit the challenge. We presented for two hours on an idea where we had identified an opportunity in the market based on insightful research with a solution that had not been done before. Obviously, it needed funding and an environment (eg. A building) to be implemented as a prototype so that we could co-create the idea and test it. At the end of the presentation, our potential client was engaged, excited and very supportive of the idea. To progress we got the question: “Can you prove that this works?” That hurt. We reminded them that their brief was “to present something innovative that ideally had never been done before!” If it’s not been done before how can we prove that it works? Turns out they had investors who wanted new thinking but not at the risk of investing money in something that was not proven. To me this, in a nut shell, is the problem with delivering innovation. People think they want innovation and new ideas but really they want ‘something +’. They want the next iteration, arguably a better one, on an idea or solution where the risk can be managed within the structure of traditional business, and in my view this is the attitude of the overwhelming majority of companies in the world.

It’s exactly the same within businesses, where leaders are encouraging their teams to think innovatively, it doesn’t seem however, that they are allowing innovation to thrive. Again most of it comes down to risk. In the world we live in, people say one thing but so many times their actions are contrary to their words. Allowing innovation to thrive is not difficult but it takes guts. In a world of top line growth and bottom line performance, short term returns for shareholders and in large businesses an obsession with time sheets and utilisation, innovation gets stifled because to innovate, namely prototype, test, fail and repeat takes time and costs money. Some businesses now talk about failing fast to learn which is a great step, but we still need to encourage all of our teams to innovate. So how do leaders do this?

I recently attended a great conference called DisruptSydney which looked at innovation, AI and the future of work, especially within big business, looking at how to encourage intrepreneurs and leadership. A lot of what was said reinforced my own thinking and prompted me to write this blog.

In my view, for innovation to succeed leaders need to get out of the way! Innovation only succeeds when leaders clear the way rather than set up roadblocks and checkpoints. In a world where we seem to crave the management of risk with business plans, sign offs, checkpoints, gates etc, process like this can only strangle and suffocate innovation. How can you write a business plan on an idea that no one else has thought of. It’s insane. I can make a business plan say anything and put some substance and evidence behind it, it doesn’t mean that’s what will happen!

The word “No” is another great blocker of innovation from leaders. The word “No” has no consequence, apart from disheartening the person asking, as it kills the idea and the spirit. What would be a great driver of innovation is the process turned on its head. Instead of the innovator having to do a business case on why the idea would work, if the leader says No, they should be asked to complete a form explaining why they said No and why the idea wouldn’t work. That might change some behaviours and drive accountability of saying the word No! Hopefully it would encourage more, “let’s explore?” conversations.

So be the leader who gets out the way of your team with an idea to thrive, that’s when you’ll see innovation flourish. In leadership terms, and my terms, innovation is a about being a leader who backs ideas, gets the f*ck out of the way and supports the test and fail fast process.

Give it a go! Look at changing your mindset and maybe even your processes and enjoy the satisfaction to call yourself an innovator!

About The Author:

4Mark Bray is Director, Mentor and Business Coach with over 30 years’ experience working in the construction industry in the UK, US and Australia.

Marks passion, (His Why), is to inspire people and teams to be better than they believe they can be. Through true leadership, questioning the status quo and as a committed mentor, Mark strives to bring positive change and results of the highest order.

Follow Mark’s updates here at Make One’s Mark and on Twitter @MarkieJBray

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