Executive Briefing: How Leaders Drive Innovation

A culture of creativity begins at the top.

By Dori Meinert May 1, 2015
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About 94 percent of business leaders say innovation is key to success.

Yet just 14 percent are confident about their organizations’ ability to drive innovation, according to a survey of 500 leaders conducted by the Center for Creative Leadership last year.

Why the disconnect? It may start at the top.

When David Magellan Horth, senior fellow at the center, conducts workshops on leadership innovation, he asks business leaders how they react when people come to them with new ideas. Their answers are often telling.

One senior marketing executive expressed frustration: “Why can’t people just do what they are supposed to do?” he asked. Another executive admitted to advising employees to take the afternoon off with the hope that their ideas would just go away.

These reactions reflect the pressure that leaders, particularly those in the middle ranks, often feel when faced with the choice between encouraging innovation and meeting day-to-day business demands. If a new idea sounds promising but it’s not on the annual list of department goals and there’s no budget for it, it often gets set aside or scrapped.

“The choice tends to be ‘let’s run today’s business’—even if innovation is a concern at the top—‘because that’s what we’re measured on,’ ” Horth says. “We have to do both.”

Seeing the Big Picture

Leaders also struggle to take an organization-wide view. They must let go of the myth that innovation comes from one person in a certain department or at a specific level of the company, Horth says.

“Innovation is rarely a single idea with one person driving it. There are usually other people involved,” he says. “Sometimes they don’t get the press they deserve.”

Innovation is not limited to new products; it can lead to new processes as well. And while an idea might not work for one department, project or product, it could be a good solution for another. That’s why it’s important to work across organizational boundaries to connect ideas with the right people, Horth says.

Creating an environment where people can be innovative may require a shift in thinking for many leaders. While traditional business strategy is about removing ambiguity and driving results, leaders who want to encourage innovation must learn to defer judgment, tolerate ambiguity and become curious about what they don’t know.

Nothing kills innovation more than a “know-it-all leader,” says Horth, who co-authored the Center for Creative Leadership’s white paper Becoming a Leader Who Fosters Innovation.

Creating a Creative Culture

Leaders can encourage innovative thinking by asking people who come to them with new ideas the following questions:

  • What are the positives?
  • What are the opportunities?
  • What are the potential problems with the new idea?
  • How can you address those issues?

Don’t be too quick to toss an idea, Horth says, and be aware that an organization’s culture can work against efforts to encourage innovation. If leaders are sincere, they must model the openness to innovation that they want to see in others.

One effective way to shift the culture is to reward or promote people who have the courage to bring you their ideas. Doing so communicates “this is the way we want people to be,” Horth says.

Tips for Encouraging Innovation

In its white paper Becoming a Leader Who Fosters Innovation, the Center for Creative Leadership offers these suggestions:

  • Create a mandate for change.
  • Model innovative behavior.
  • Communicate challenging strategic issues and use them to seek creative ideas.
  • Create diverse teams to address strategic issues.
  • Give people access to creative tools, methods and experiences.
  • Design and build systems to nurture innovation.
  • Find a home for the ideas that don’t quite fit for you but might fit elsewhere.
  • Break down barriers to innovation, including internal politics and destructive criticism.
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