Architect showing new house structure

Recently, the Wall Street Journal published this article on Leadership & Innovation, providing a platform for top leaders to give their unique take on innovation. What I love about this piece is that it makes innovation into more than a catch phrase or a corporate buzz word. Innovation is real, it’s difficult and it requires multidimensional leadership.

We’ll tackle all of the concepts of innovative leadership in subsequent blogs, but let’s start with the first directive, from Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a tenured business professor at Harvard Business School. For over 25 years, she has studied business management techniques, innovation and corporate culture. Here’s Dr. Kanter’s approach to leading with innovation:

“Encourage small wins – and the big wins are more likely to come.”

Let’s break this down—it seems like a simple concept, but it actually goes counter to what we may typically think about the concept of innovation. How many of us view innovation as “the big idea” or a “flash of brilliance”? Guess what…a huge game-changing innovation like Twitter comes from a very small idea on the nature of communication itself.

What does this mean in an organization? It means a different way of looking at things from a leadership perspective—hierarchical approaches and a necessity for complete, proven ideas are smothering and impede innovation. Dr. Kanter states that “innovation springs from a culture that encourages everyone to come forth with new ideas, however small, and then provides the time and seed money to develop it. “

Innovation is not planned, but it can be fostered. Even if as a leader you recognize that innovation can be unpredictable and sporadic, by providing an environment where these kinds of ideas can flourish, then unpredictable innovation can potentially become part of the norm.

As a leader, how does your own approach and thinking style encourage sporadic, “small-win” innovation?

Analytical Leaders are clear thinkers. They are naturally inclined to push for rigorous analysis. Encouraging small wins from an analytical perspective means providing a way to measure even small ideas.

  • Find a way to ascertain what small innovations have the best chance for big wins. Encourage employees to prove small ideas and then support and fund them.

Structural leaders are practical leaders. Yes, they may be cautious of new ideas and have proclivities towards predictable outcomes, but they can be advantageous! An innovative structural leader will:

  • Create guidelines (whether broad or specific) to elicit new and clear ways for employees to contribute “small win” innovations.
  • Create a schedule to review any new idea and provide a clear platform to view new ideas.

Conceptual leaders are the visionary and imaginative leaders. These leaders enjoy the unusual and have tendencies to be quite intuitive about ideas. An insightful leader will:

  • Encourage new techniques for Innovation. No one idea will be settled upon. Learn through experimentation, and see how this can contribute to the successes of the “small” or “big” win innovations.
  • Enjoy the unusual. Inspire your team to use creative observations and tackle the goals of newer innovations.

Social leaders are the relational leaders. They are genuinely concerned with the relational environment of their team. Create the team environment that leads to innovation.

  • Learn from others and appreciate their strengths. With the amalgamation of strengths, innovation excels.
  • Encourage your team to maintain open communication about ideas that are circulating within the department or office.

Thinking preferences are not the only way to lead innovation. Our brain is wired according to our Behavioral preferences as well.

  • Expressiveness can range from quiet employees to your more gregarious teammates. Leaders who understand the spectrum of expressiveness, use it to their advantage when coaxing employees to communicate small ideas.
  • Assertiveness is critical for leaders. Knowing when to accentuate the softer side (peacekeeping) and when to push employees on a more powerful focus to bring innovation is a must.
  • Flexibility should serve as an ally of innovation. Whether as a leader you can clarify what works best and create definition or create a change-oriented environment where new ideas are constantly brought to the fore, innovation can be displayed from either side.

Innovation is a creative “culture-empowering” effect, telling everyone to dream big. Don’t let anything stop you from embracing how your “wired” to be – to prevent it from coming out and encouraging all around you.

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