What happens at work when you’re presented with a new idea?
Do you shut it down, with a quick retort or dismissive gesture? Do you start playing devil’s advocate, punching holes in the idea or pointing out roadblocks? Or do you ignore it, hoping the idea (and the person who had it) will just go away?
What a leader says and does when someone comes to them with an idea can either spur innovation — or stifle it. In fact, studies show that 20-67% of the variance on the climate for creativity in organizations is directly attributed to the behavior of the leader.
Caution, skepticism, judging and dismissal may be understandable — and typical — responses to ideas that are new. Yet those responses kill innovation.
To counter this tendency and encourage innovation in their teams and among direct reports, leaders can develop an innovation mindset — along with learning innovation processes, tools, and skills. An innovation mindset involves several factors, including curiosity, ambiguity tolerance, affirmative judgement, and persistence.
People who are good at making things happen are curious. Curiosity fuels the acquisition of new information and is the source of creativity and innovation.
Innovation leaders are curious about why things are set up the way they are, open to doing things differently and willing to try things that don’t neatly fit into their own assumptions. Curious leaders ask, “What if?” “Why else?” or “How might we do something different?” They shift their focus from, “There’s no way we can do this …” to “I wonder how we could make it happen?”
When you feel you already know the answer, there’s no curiosity.
Ambiguity is uncomfortable and challenging. But the ability to slow down and be okay with ambiguity is necessary to innovate in the face of complexity.
Innovation leaders balance the need to move forward with the need to hold themselves open to options. Creative thinking and innovative solutions increase when leaders are willing to stay open to possibilities longer.
Instead of telling people what they don’t like or what won’t work, innovation leaders let people know what they do like. They point out the strengths and value of a new solution or idea. This lets the team know they are on to something new and useful, and ensures they retain the most valuable attributes as the idea evolves.
Affirmative judgment also provides recognition and promotes a sense of accomplishment and progress, which according to research by Teresa Amabile is the No. 1 thing employees need to keep them motivated.
By definition, new ideas are strange, unusual, weird, and different. So, selling that idea to others to the point of getting buy-in takes a lot of work and a lot of time.
A senior leader once told his people that if they propose an idea and he says “no,” don’t give up. If they still believe in the idea, he wants them to try another way to pitch the idea until he sees its value. For him, that was the definition of “empowerment.”
Innovation leaders empower themselves to do what it takes, which typically requires great persistence.
Innovation doesn’t happen without leadership. Regardless of the brilliance of your strategy, remember that the culture will support it or kill it. Since leaders have such a significant impact on the culture, it’s up to you as the leader to develop it. So, the next time you hear a new idea or are asked to weigh in on a new solution, make a choice to lead innovation — or let an opportunity pass you by.
CCL’s 2-day program, Driving Results through Innovation Leadership (DRIL), helps mid- to senior-level managers learn to champion innovation while managing the day-to-day business. Participants learn a process to work across the organization to drive innovation; understand the innovation leadership mindset, toolsets and skillsets; and work on an innovation challenge they are facing.