In today's ever changing world, what does innovation mean in a workplace context?
Stuart Morris, lecturer in entrepreneurship, Henley Business School (SM): Innovation can mean many things: innovative working practices like flexible hours to support families, innovative management styles, encouraging employees to innovate around their job practices, devolving control. Anything that allows change that might not otherwise happen.
Tamara Friedrich, associate professor of entrepreneurship and innovation, Warwick Business School (TF): Often people see only radical, technological innovations and get fixated on those as the prime examples of innovation, but today’s organisations must innovate beyond just their R&D departments. Innovations in service, process or administration can be just as impactful on the organisation’s performance. In hypercompetitive markets, it may come down to changing the way your organisation interacts with its customers or delivers its product, rather than innovating an entirely new product.
Costas Andriopoulos, professor of innovation and entrepreneurship, Cass Business School (CA): Innovation is about creating the right ‘space’ and providing adequate resources (e.g. a challenging task, talented team members, as well as money and time) necessary to pursue the problem under investigation.
On the one hand, leaders should allow the exploration of issues and encourage the development of interpersonal relationships, both of which can be instrumental in fostering an environment for innovation, learning, and knowledge transfer. On the other hand, you should also develop processes and structures that can rapidly translate these new ideas into successful products in the marketplace.
Vibha Gaba, associate professor of entrepreneurship, INSEAD (VG): Having a culture where experimentation with new ideas is valued and rewarded. Some of these new ideas may not lead to desired outcomes but you have to let people try. Like in entrepreneurship, many new venture ideas fail before something big comes along. But without experimentation, we cannot aspire to be innovative.
Lecturer in entrepreneurship, Henley Business School
What characteristics does a leader need to be innovative and how can they develop these?
VG: Traditional leadership tends to centre on delivering predictable outcomes: “Here are the available resources and this is the desired outcome”, whereas innovative leadership allows the outcome to be innovated by the team as it considers the available resources. There is a degree of risk here as the leader has to trust the wisdom of the team and not be in complete control themselves. It’s a concept called “the pilot in the plane” – the pilot is in control of what they can control, but accepts there are external elements that cannot be controlledor predicted.
Rather than getting stressed about these and trying to minimise their impact, the innovative leader embraces the unexpected and innovates to maximise the benefit to the business.
TF: The bigger issue is how leaders can foster creativity in others. Leading for innovation is a unique form of leadership and goes against some of the historic tendencies of leaders to seek control and provide clear direction.
Leaders who want their teams to be more creative and innovative should provide a clear, overarching vision orframework to work within, but then give them the space to solve the problems in unique ways.freedom to bring their ideas forward and take charge of their work. This can be a hard thing for leaders who are ultimately responsible for the team’s performance. You can develop this confidence in your team by slowly building the trust with incrementally raised freedom on subsequent projects.
CA: You need to master balancing short-term successes with long-term sustainability. Pursue improvements and extensions of existing competencies, technologies and products aimed at satisfying the needs of existing customers but, at the same time, invest resources to experiment towards products or technologies that address emerging consumer needs.
In other words, leaders should embrace ‘paradoxical thinking’. Proactively raise innovation tensions through open dialogue, identify their contradictory elements (e.g. short-term versus long-term), explore their links (e.g. profit can provide the slack and opportunity to tackle potentially breakthrough projects, while breakthroughs can reinforce current – and build new – customer relationships), and come up with new insights for existing problems.
VG: Leaders can be more creative by focusing more on asking the right questions. As a leader you are not expected to come up with the answers to every problem. But you can make a big difference by guiding the process through which new ideas are generated, processed, and accepted or rejected. What also helps is questioning (and understanding) the underlying assumptions and listening to the diversity of perspectives.
What characteristics help to cultivate a workplace environment of continuous improvement, innovation and initiatives?
SM: Traditional businesses tend to punish innovation that fails. The reality is that true innovation cannot happen without some failures. An employee who suggests something to improve efficiency that proves to be unworkable should be encouraged to try again rather than told to toe the party line. Homogeneous teams produce homogeneous ideas. Heterogeneous teamscreate novel and exciting ideas that are outside the experience of their members.
TF: Encourage autonomy and ownership – allow people to improve processes where they see fit. Promote a psychologically safe environment where voicing ideas or raising objections to ideas that have been proposed is expected and encouraged. Encourage exchange of information and exposure to other areas of the organisation. Organisations can get so siloed that answers to one department’s questions may be just across the hall, but nobody is sharing the information. Creativity and innovation should be recognised as a critical component of performance appraisals. Not every employee is going to come up with the next major service offering, but they can seek out ways to do their job better.
CA: Develop a context that jump-starts employees’ curiosity. Curious staff pay more attention to detail and extract novelty from ambiguities, which enables them in return to ‘connect the dots’. They are better attuned to generate insights from multiple sources of knowledge when addressing changing conditions and unfamiliar situations. Leaders need to embrace questioning – focus on “Why not?” or “How may we do it?”, or “How can we serve our customer better?”, whenever anyone says “That won’t work” or “We don’t do that”.
VG: Communication is the key. But the intent of the communication is not to just get the word out (which is what most organisations and leaders seem to do) but more about creating a dialogue with the people to understand their perspective. It’s also about checking how well the key messages relating to improvement, innovation and initiatives are understood by the people. So listening is one of the most important skills for fostering an environment of continuous improvement.
Leveraging diversity is another important aspect. There are many sources of diversity in organisations today (age, tenure, cultural background, functional background, cognitive orientation, gender etc). In other words, a more diverse organisation has many assets – experience, perspectives, ideas, expertise, networks. But these natural assets do not automatically translate into high performance. The leader’s role is to develop explicit mechanisms to leverage this diversity: to make sure these diverse perspectives and vantage points are taken into account in making decisions. Of course, doing so makes the decision-making processes time-consuming and seemingly messy but the long-term benefits are obvious. It also helps create an environment of trust among people.
"You must recognise the talents around you and give people the freedom to bring their ideas forward and take charge of their work"
The big idea
Making it happen:
"Without experimentation we cannot aspire to be innovative"
Lecturer in entrepreneurship, Henley Business School
associate professor of entrepreneurship, INSEAD
associate professor of entrepreneurship and innovation, Warwick Business School
professor of innovation and entrepreneurship, Cass Business School