20 May How To Lead A Culture Of Innovation
There is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. – Winnie the Pooh
Leading an innovation culture can be a messy business. Or, maybe that should be: Leading an innovation business can be a messy culture. However the notion is phrased, the point is the same. Innovation is not a tidy process.
By its very nature, innovation is unpredictable, even though your business requires predictability. It is full of surprises, even when you believe your biggest enemy is surprise. And, frequently, innovation delivers more failure than success, even when your future (both your organization’s and yours as an individual!) demands a track record of success. Innovation is intrinsically a contradiction, offering significant improvement to your business, just as it offers up disruption and change. It can dramatically enhance your competitive advantage, while at the same time putting your existing market advantage at risk. It can create sustainable growth, while at the same time threatening known, existing growth elements.
It seems axiomatic that positioning innovation as a core value or business model is a high-reward, high-risk proposition. And that means that creating an innovation culture may very well require a different approach to leadership, a different way of thinking about yourself, and a different way of being mindful of your own development as a leader.
One way to conceptualize the leadership of innovation is to think of yourself as a single ecosystem, operating inside of a larger ecosystem. You have an accountability to develop yourself as an innovation ecosystem as much as you have an accountability to your organization. It follows, then, that just as you work to develop certain organizational features to align toward innovation, you would also work to develop the same features in your own leadership, and in your own thinking. For example, if you are working to create a culture of trust in your organization, you would want to devote equally as much time to developing trust as a core way of thinking and being for yourself. For every value, system or attribute you wish to develop in your organization, you would want to make sure you develop the same in yourself.
As you think of yourself as an ecosystem, apply the same tools and systems to yourself that you apply to your organization. Where you are demanding that metrics be used to drive innovation conversations, ask yourself what metrics you use to measure your own leadership. When you are building out a systematic approach to designing solutions, ask yourself how you incorporate the same design principles into fostering your own leadership development. Whatever thinking, tools, or strategies you are deploying into building an innovation ecosystem, deploy the same equally toward yourself as a leader; then ask yourself if you as an individual measure up to the demands being made of the organizational ecosystem.
A foundational element of innovation is always risk and failure – how they are perceived, how they are contextualized in systems, how they are viewed culturally. As an innovation leader, you will want to make the same demand for risk on yourself as you do on others. You will be making evaluations and judgments constantly about your organization’s risk culture and how it is, or is not, supportive of innovation; it will be equally as important, and perhaps more important, that you evaluate your own internal ecosystem of risk. You cannot ask others to take risk, if you are not willing to take risks yourself.
Just as your organizational ecosystem is made up of complex relationships, connections and networks, you as an individual ecosystem operate inside of relationships and networks, too. Your leadership success is in great measure dependent on the functional effectiveness of your own network, and this merits reflection and overt, intentional evaluation. No doubt you are concerned with how connectivity operates inside your organization; it is equally important that you understand the nature of your own relationships.
In particular, innovation leaders need to be consciously aware of their connection to brokers, risk-takers and role models. These three ways of being and acting are especially important to innovation culture sustainability, and to fostering effective networks. You as an innovation leader need to be mindful of how and to what degree you cultivate and nurture these roles in your organization, and how well you as an individual are connected to them. But it is equally important that you evaluate yourself, too. How well do you as an individual function as a broker? What is your tolerance for and approach to risk-taking, and failure? Are you, in fact, a role model for innovation in your organization, and how exactly do you know and confirm this? Unless you mindfully evaluate your own ability to take on and be these roles, you will run the risk of demanding from others something you cannot give yourself.
Being an innovation leader requires both an intentional, outward-focused attentiveness, and a strong, objective, inward-focused self-evaluation. Devoting time, energy and work to both worlds can create an alignment between the conditions you wish to cause in the external world of an organizational ecosystem and the internal world of your own thinking and being. This is as simple as thinking that you should expect of yourself precisely what you are expecting of others. Not only will this improve your leadership, and increase the contribution you can make to your organization, it carries a very special bonus: It is simply the right thing to do.
Henry Doss is a venture capitalist, volunteer in higher education, student and musician.
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