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Leading a Culture of Innovation

This post first appeared on Chip Bell's blog.

A CEO met with her senior staff and posed a typical CEO question: “What strategies and tactics would you recommend if we needed to increase our productivity by 10%?” Her executives quickly outlined belt-tightening steps and “do more with less” recommendations. Then she asked, “What if needed to increase our productivity by 100%?” After a long pause, one bold executive answered, “You cannot get there from here; we would have to completely redesign how we get work done.”


We are living in the 100% world. Global competition, shortening turn times on everything from passenger planes to manufacturing plants, and the dearth of qualified works have made revolutionary change, not incremental improvement, a matter of survival. And, as the adage goes, “You do not drown by falling in the water; you drown by staying there.” It has ushered in a new era of innovation. The winning organizations are populated by leaders who know that the kind of influence that creates novel, creative, or ingenious solutions is different than the influence that yields standardization, order and efficiency.

Management guru Tom Peters wrote, “From cradle to grave the pressure is on to be normal. The trouble with this is that corporate normalcy derives from and is dedicated to past realities and past successes. There is little room for original thinking.” Below are three practices common to leaders who successfully influence innovation.

Innovation Leaders Mine Freedom by Removing Stupid Rules

Mining for gold involves removing dirt and rocks that lie between the miner and the mother lode. Great innovation leaders know that, just like mining, freedom is already present in the employee. It is not something to be added; it is something to be extracted or released. And, the role of the leader is to remove the barriers preventing employees from using their freedom. We sometimes mistakenly use the word “empower” like we mistakenly use the word “motivate.” Leaders don’t motivate; they create conditions for self-motivation. The same is true for empowerment. One key barrier to freedom is irrational rules.

Steven Little in his book The Milkshake Moment relates the countless times he checks into a hotel late and calls room service to order a vanilla milkshake. And, he is willing to pay whatever room service wants to charge for the treat. When told the item is not on the room service menu, he meticulously asks the room service person, “Do you have milk, do you have vanilla ice cream, do you have a tall glass and a long spoon?” Only half the time is the menu-rule bound room service staff able to deliver on an item they could easily create.

Innovation Leaders Create Echoes by Eliminating Rumors and Myths

Echoes are quite different than the old gossip game. We all grew up marveling at how the message changed if we whispered it to someone, who then repeated it to someone else, who repeated to another. Clarity of the message is crucial in organizations that foster innovation. And, leaders seek to message and connect more like an echo. Echoes repeat precisely what was spoken.Communication is far more than the transmission of information. It is the creation of shared meaning. Echo connections bolster transparency and safeguard clarity. The goal is less like the hearsay of eyewitnesses following a traumatic event and more like giving a camera to everyone at a wedding.

Innovation Leaders Foster Curiosity Through Presence and Courage

Tex Bender wrote in his book, Don’t Squat With Your Spurs On, “You can pretend to care but you cannot pretend to be there.” Great innovation leaders know that leading from the office is for wimps. Leaders are present. They don’t just lead by wandering around; they lead by staying engaged. They don’t just know the facts and figures; they know the stories and struggles. Because they make it their business to do their homework on customers and associates, they can affirm on sight without benefit of cue card or staff whispers. They call associates at home to congratulate them on something important to the associate. They thank customers for their business with sincerity and obvious gratitude. They hold meetings on other’s turf.

Great innovation leaders bring a perpetual energy and intensity to every encounter. When it comes to their role, they care enough to bring their very best. Passion takes the plain vanilla out of encounters. Philosopher Goethe called it “boldness” and said: “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin in boldness. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. The moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves, too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred.”

Philosopher Hegel wrote, “Nothing great in the world has been accomplished without passion.” Innovation can occur without leadership. There are people in all sorts of organizations who work in innovative ways simply out of pure joy and the belief that “only dead fish swim with the current.” However, for innovation to happen consistently across an organization, leadership has to step in. The behavior and practices of leaders can cause innovation to be easy or difficult, held in esteem or dismissed as a frill, supported or ignored. Innovation leaders need not be charismatic and charming to be effective. However, they must be clear and sincere about its importance and persistent and disciplined in how it is supported.