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Innovation & Leadership
November 6th, 2009

Two topics that are consistent hot buttons in the corporate world are innovation, and leadership. Both are in high demand for conferences, seminars, and workshops. Yet, what is not quite as apparent is that the two are related: one can lead to the other.

The relationship between leadership and innovation is pretty clear: if an organizationís leaders do not support innovation, in action as well as in words, itís a pretty safe bet that innovation canít happen. The most that will happen is that employees will do their best to look good without actually taking any risks and doing good. In such an organization, innovation will not happen, and the organization will fall behind its more innovative competitors, even as management puzzles over why it canít seem to catch up.

However, the manner in which innovation can improve the leadership of an organization is not as apparent. Itís something I only discovered by working with clients who wanted to promote innovation in their organization.

Two primary kinds of innovation techniques

From my perspective as a futurist, there are two primary kinds of techniques for exercising innovation: top-down, and bottom-up. Top-down means looking at the big picture, and breaking it into pieces in order to uncover opportunities that might not have occurred to you otherwise. Hence, scenario planning, where you look out to a time horizon several years away and consider a number of Ďwhat-ifí possible futures that your organization might experience, and then come up with contingency plans to deal with each one, is a top-down technique. So, for example, I worked with a logistics company that dealt with the financial industry. We prepared a number of possible scenarios for the future of their clients, and then identified what services their clients would need over the next 5-7 years. Once we had identified these services, the logistics firm was able to think through what they could do to support their clients in the defined circumstances, and therefore what services they should be prepared to develop over the same time horizon.

A bottom-up innovation technique is one where you start at ground level, in the nitty-gritty of an operation, and use one of several different kinds of brainstorming techniques to come up with new ways of doing things. Hence, many of Edward de Bonoís brainstorming techniques are bottom-up approaches. Iíve developed one called the Opportunity Matrix, where I break an organizationís operations down into tiny pieces, and then pose focused questions about how those tiny parts of their operations might be improved. By forcing an organization down to the micro level, it forces people to come up with fresh thoughts instead of recycling ideas from elsewhere. Because you are dealing at such a minute level, you canít fall back on clichťs or old ideas. They donít fit. The result is that you come up with hundreds of new ideas for tiny improvements, and then sift through them to find the ones that seem to hold the most promise, that play to your strengths, or that you just like the best, and develop those.

Where leadership comes into this is slightly harder to see; you have to approach it obliquely.

How to create excitement

A top-down approach, such as scenario planning, can both give your organization direction and a sense of purpose, and help you inspire your people. A believable Big Picture can be heady stuff, especially if you develop it with a plan to bring it to fruition, as you can do by developing a Desired Future scenario. It can create excitement, which energizes people and leads to fresh enthusiasm and further fresh thinking. In fact, I have a very simple formula for this: Dreams + Belief = Excitement. If you can help your people paint an enticing view of the future, one that they sincerely want to see happen, and make it seem possible, then people get excited about it. In contrast, if you paint a not-very-interesting picture of tomorrow, then even if people believe it will happen, thereís no excitement. And if you paint a fantastic image of a really terrific future world, but nobody believes that it will happen, they may mouth the corporate slogans, but you wonít have won their hearts and minds; there will be no enthusiasm.

So, painting an highly desirable picture of the future, that your people fervently desire, and showing them how it can be achieved inspires them, excites them, energizes them, and underscores your leadership abilities.

How to motivate people.

Meanwhile, giving your people authority to come up with new ideas, and then seeing the best of those ideas implemented, as happens with successful bottom-up techniques, helps keep excitement alive when the novelty of a Grand Idea has worn off, because (a) they can see that your operations are steadily improving, and (b) they see that they are both being listened to, and that they are making a difference. Both of these buttress peopleís belief in the organizations they work for. Everyone wants to work for a winner, and winners get better all the time, learning from the past, and preparing for the future. And going home with the feeling that youíve accomplished something, and made a difference in the world, according to management studies going back decades, is one of the strongest of motivations for virtually everyone. And creating an environment where people feel theyíre working for a winner, that they are being listened to, and where they can make a difference, dramatically enhances the attraction of working for your organization Ė and by inference, enhances your leadership abilities.

Nor are these things just good PR. By creating a future that people can believe in and get excited about, an environment where they feel they can contribute, and the belief that they are working for a winning team, you are creating real improvements in your organization. And these things will help no matter how successful you are; top quartile, or bottom-feeder. Leadership, true leadership, comes from leading people towards success in a way that makes them believe they contributed to it.

And thatís the link between leadership and innovation. Ironically, itís very simple Ė which is not to say itís easy. But then, if it was easy, everyone would be #1, wouldnít they?

© Copyright, IF Research, November 2009.

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