How Leaders Can Drive Creativity in Their Organization

Leadership is the core of a business’ success. We generally peg companies to their products, but it’s the leaders who drive those products out. Good leaders develop good employees, who in turn, develop good products for the organization.

However, today’s landscape is constantly changing. Planning for the next quarter is a challenge; committing to decisions that will play out in the next 5 years is even more difficult. This is where innovation in leadership is key to transforming a company into a success story.

The good news is that many executives recognize this, too. According to a research report by the Center for Creative Leadership, 94% of 500 executives surveyed said that innovation is very important for their organization. However, only 14% said that their organization was effective at innovation.

While business-thinking in leadership is crucial, executives ought to look beyond traditional means and explore the possibility of incorporating innovation leadership into their methods. This school of thought can be divided into 2 components:

  • Innovative approach to leadership: Bringing new thinking and different actions to how executives lead, manage, and execute tasks. It has to do with asking yourself if the role and challenges faced by both the executive and the organization can be thought about differently.
  • Leadership that drives innovation: Creating an environment where others can apply innovative thinking to tackle issues and develop new ideas. It’s about growing a culture of innovation.

While business-thinking is based on research, formulas, and facts, innovative thinking uses ambiguity as an advantage to find new ways and explore various options. Here are 6 ways leaders can develop innovative leadership thinking:

  1. Pay attention. The ability to notice what has gone unnoticed is crucial. It’s about looking beyond the surface of a situation and identifying new patterns. Paying attention starts with slowing down – a notion many leaders are unfamiliar with – in order to be more deliberate in understanding the situation.
  1. Personalize. At work, the individual’s experience tends to be undervalued. For innovative thinking, personalizing is a twofold process: tapping into our scope of knowledge and experience, and understanding your customers on a personal, human level. Although it might seem unrelated, personal experiences should be tapped on to introduce fresh perspectives. Personalizing draws on your interests, hobbies, and insights, and applies them to work. The customer side of personalizing is the capability to comprehend your customers as humans and peers, and not simply patrons of your services or products. Deep customer knowledge leads to new ideas, patterns, and understandings that drives innovation.
  1. Imaging. Did you know that the human brain processes images 60,000 times faster than text? Words by themselves are typically insufficient for making sense of vast amounts of information, and leaders looking to lead innovatively should leverage this fact. Pictures, stories, and metaphors are great tools for constructing ideas and describing situations effectively.
  1. Serious play. Business-thinking and routine work can lead to a monotonous process. Innovation requires bending some rules, and breaking some of the rigidness. When you generate knowledge and perspectives through non-traditional ways — improvisation, experimentation, levity, and rapid prototyping — it’s an opportunity for innovation to be generated.
  1. Collaborative inquiry. Innovation is a team sport, and not an epiphany from a single person. It’s far more collaborative than we realize. Collaborative inquiry is a process of sustained, effective dialogue with those who have a stake in the situation. Organizations can use 4 steps in collaborative inquiries: exploring and clarifying ideas, ideating, developing those ideas, and turning those ideas into concrete plans.
  1. Crafting. Innovation requires us to shed ‘either/or thinking’ that’s ingrained in most of us, and have the ability to hold 2 opposing ideas in the mind. Crafting is about synthesis, integration, and possibility. Through what is called abductive reasoning, we are able to make intuitive connections among what might be a mass of unrelated information, and begin to find order in chaos.

Embracing the technique of innovation leadership is one step in producing a response to the challenges organizations face today. Studies have shown that 20 -67% of the variance of creativity in organizations is directly attributable to leadership behavior. This means that leaders should cultivate and support organizational innovation through their words and actions.

Businesses everywhere are feeling the limitations of their traditional, standard procedures. The added factors of digital disruption and widespread uncertainty have leaders looking for alternate solutions to move forward. Innovative leadership is the solution to finding what’s new, what’s better, and what’s next.

This piece — written by CCL’s Senior APAC Faculty member Teow Chong Yeo — originally appeared in the Jan. 13, 2017 print issue of the Straits Times, a Singapore-based media outlet.

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