Leadership of Innovation 3 – Leaving Your Team to Get on With It!

This is the third blog in my series on the leadership of innovation.

In my last blog, I talked about the power of a clearly defined organisational purpose in igniting innovation in organisations. In this blog, I would like to discuss how the humans in organisations innovate and how they react to excessive control.

You see, I have learned that you don’t need to exhort people to innovate.

Everyone (and, indeed, conventional wisdom) told me that you did – that you had to be constantly “in people’s chilli” urging them forever onwards, giving instructions, checking, measuring progress, employing KPIs and generally ‘cracking the whip’. That is what good leaders do, right?

Wrong! Entirely wrong; you don’t need to do any of that.

In fact, those are the worst things you can do, because the more you exhort people to innovate the less they tend to do so. What you actually need to do is simply leave people alone, because humans, left to their own devices, will naturally innovate.

The human ability to innovate is really quite phenomenal, if only they are allowed to get on with it undisturbed. The human predisposition to innovate is why Homo Sapiens has become the dominant species on this planet. It is why we have robotic vehicles roving around, today, on Mars. It is why we now have a vaccine for Ebola. It is why we have the internet and antibiotics and smartphones. It is why, in 2014, we landed a probe on the comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko (see below).

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So humans are pretty amazing at innovating if given the time and space to do so.

However, this does not happen very often. Most organisations completely suffocate innovation with unintended barriers (that they often don’t even realise that they are putting in place). We should never underestimate the ability of 21st Century organisations to sabotage their own innovative success!

I have come to realise that the single most important role of an innovation leader is to aggressively remove barriers to innovation, so that innovation can then naturally spring forth.

To use an agricultural metaphor, innovative ideas are like the wild flowers in a beautiful English wildflower meadow. The flowers spring up because the meadow is left alone and the natural order of nature takes its course. Similarly, innovation springs up from within humans when they are given the space and freedom to think.

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Wildflower meadows, which used to be common in our countryside, have largely disappeared. These days, all we tend to find on a country walk are green deserts of grass; monoculture. The wild flowers are gone, wiped out by the toxic pesticides that are continually sprayed all over our fields, supressing the natural growth of the indigenous flowers in an attempt to encourage (or suppress) other plant species.

If we swap the idea of wild flowers for the idea of innovation, we see that this is exactly what leaders are doing in organisations across the world; executives and management teams are suppressing the natural human instinct to innovate with toxic ideas and practices that they are aggressively spraying around their organisations. It is no exaggeration to say that many organisational leaders are unintentionally killing innovation from within.

But there is hope. If we stop spraying toxic pesticides over our fields, then what happens? Slowly, the wildflowers flowers come back. And so it is with innovation. If we stop suppressing innovation within our organisations then it will naturally return.

The point I am making is this:

Rather than succumbing to conventional wisdom and constantly harassing people to innovate, setting targets, collecting KPI information, checking progress, requiring frequent success reports, measuring financial rather than innovative outputs, and generally being an ocean-going pain in the neck, innovation leaders would do far better to devote their energies into removing the (often very high) organisational barriers that are preventing people from innovating in the first place.

In my next blog, I will look at two of these barriers.

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