There’s a lot of talk these days about innovation and disruption. If you’re a front-line leader, what can you do to foster innovation? First, you must understand how your ability to innovate is directly shaped by your thoughts and beliefs about the world and yourself in it.
Let’s talk first about some actions that are key to your ability to identify and champion an innovative idea. Across dozens of organizations that have tried to develop more innovative cultures, they consistently identify and emphasize competencies like the following:
- Recognize opportunities, which others may not see, to affect organizational goals and challenges.
- Advocate for unpopular ideas.
- Challenge others’ thinking and their attachment to deeply held viewpoints and assumptions.
- Take exploratory action without complete data.
- Experiment and adapt based on lessons learned, including failure.
- Get out of your silo and partner across functions and boundaries.
- Engage to build support in any relevant place in the organization, regardless of hierarchy.
- Expect and address stakeholder (internal clients, senior leaders) resistance to the proposed innovations.
- Expect and address stakeholder resistance to engaging with you in new ways.
- Be willing to look stupid or be seen as wrong by others.
And consistently, despite the laundry lists and exhortations, the majority of front-line leaders continue to do just the opposite. They will continue to…
- Identify proposals that are interesting from the perspective of their own function, without linking them to broader organizational goals or challenges.
- “Take orders” from internal clients, regardless on their own viewpoint about the order.
- Avoid risk by focusing on what’s worked in the past, and waiting until all the data is in before proposing new action.
- De-prioritize the innovative, exploratory work whenever tactical demands conflict.
- Avoid cross-functional collaboration or any approach that involves multiple and competing interests.
- Communicate their ideas through hierarchical channels.
- Avoid difficult conversations when others won’t engage with them on the innovative work.
Why is it so hard to change leaders’ action on these dimensions? Developing these competencies is what Ronald Heifetz calls an adaptive challenge. In contrast to technical challenges, in which a person learns new knowledge and then immediately applies it, adaptive challenges require learners to change how they think. If the learner’s thinking process is not addressed, when an adaptive challenge is mistakenly treated as if it’s a technical challenge, people remain stuck in old behaviors, despite the stated values. That is the result that’s occurring in many organizations trying to transform their innovativeness.
So how do you change in relation to an adaptive challenge? You have to look at the meaning of the desired action to you – the beliefs and assumptions you have about the action and its potential impact on outcomes that are important to you. For example, here are some beliefs I’ve heard from leaders in organizations trying to change their culture. (Note that they don’t say these things openly, in front of the senior execs who are expecting them to be different.)
- If I propose my great idea to an important stakeholder and they resist, they will think I’ve screwed up.
- It’s not my job to tell my customers what they need – it’s my job to give them what they ask for.
- If I challenge an important other, I will damage the relationship.
- If I try an experiment before I have full data and eliminate the risks, I could make a mistake and be penalized.
- If there’s a priority conflict between my innovative work and responding to urgent tactical issues, I will let others down if I prioritize the innovative work.
- Asking questions to learn about other areas will cause me to show up as ignorant.
If you have these beliefs, you don’t see them as beliefs. You see them as reality! And therefore you will not adopt actions that you believe are going to have bad outcomes for you. If you are guided to question your beliefs and consider that they may not be completely true all the time, you may recognize the possibility that:
- If I propose my great idea to an important stakeholder and they resist, maybe I can help open their minds to the idea – or maybe I can learn something that improves my idea.
- Sometimes customers don’t know what I can do for them or how I can change their work process/outcomes unless I tell them.
- Constructively challenging an important stakeholder can potentially strengthen the relationship.
- If I try an experiment without full data and it “fails,” I may learn something that improves my approach.
- If there’s a priority conflict between tactical and innovative work, it’s my responsibility to test that conflict with stakeholders and re-frame their thinking about what might be most important.
- Asking questions to learn about other areas can build connections with others and help me see novel ideas in the connections across boundaries.
And if you consider these possibilities, then you are willing to try doing these new actions, and see if the feared outcome does result. But the first thing you must do, if you are a front-line manager who wants to operate more innovatively, is to surface the unique way in which you see the risks and benefits of innovation-fostering behaviors, and recognize these as assumptions and not ultimate reality.
*These ideas about how meaning-making shapes action are inspired by the constructive-developmental research of Robert Kegan and his colleagues.