What are the core principles to lead innovation? That was the focus of a webinar on Leading Innovation that I presented to a global virtual audience on behalf of Accel5. My focus was on practical approaches for leaders to generate insights and discover innovative solutions to complex situations. The approaches were based on the following three core principles to lead innovation effectively.
Core principle #1: Gain Insight into Complex Situations
Many leaders fail to differentiate complex from complicated situations. Complex situations are characterized by uncertainty about future directions and high levels of ambiguity due to multiple stakeholder interests. Complex situations are not consistent from one situation to another, and when leaders interact with complex systems, the feedback is indirect, delayed and even distorted. In contrast, complicated situations are characterized by repeatable processes for which research often can surface the best options or best practices to follow. Many leaders are effective at problem-solving for complicated issues, relying on expertise, deductive reasoning and leadership authority. But these tried-and-true methods lead to costly errors and suboptimal outcomes when applied to complex situations because they fail to uncover and address the hidden, ambiguous relationships. Complexity requires a completely different approach and that is where innovative processes and design thinking excel. As most situations typically have complex and complicated characteristics, it is essential to disaggregate the problem into these two areas. Define what is complicated about the issue, then take the complex portion to gain insight into the deeper issue and to discover innovative solutions.
Core principle #2: Define Precise Boundaries and Leverage Diverse Teams
Boundaries need to be defined precisely for innovation. In the absence of precise boundaries, such as, budget, timing, structure, etc., leaders must guess what the boundaries are. There are always limits. However, sometimes executives do not want to share them, perhaps based on a false belief that any limits would constrain innovative solutions. Executives need to articulate the boundaries precisely. Then, within those precise boundaries, the leader of innovation is asked to exercise unlimited creativity. To augment the process of generating innovative insights and solutions, leaders are advised to work with a team with diverse experiences and viewpoints. When teams include different perspectives, the diversity often exposes multiple viewpoints of an issue and surfaces the real problem. Also, the combination of ideas from the diverse team members are very useful in the process of discovering alternative solutions and generating the best possible recommendations.
Core principle #3: Develop Leaders of Innovation
Many organizations focus on developing their leaders’ innovative thinking abilities as the way to find innovative solutions. However, most leaders have spent their entire lives developing their own approach to thinking, and training alone will not change their ability to be more innovative. Perhaps they will learn several techniques, but in the stress of real work situations, it’s probable that they will revert back to their normal way of thinking, which has given them success up to that point. The alternative approach is to focus development on how leaders can become leaders of innovation. This means that leaders need to excel at drawing out the innovative capacities of diverse teams, rather than trying to lead by being the most innovative person on the team. They need to create the environment of trust and collaboration that allows all team members to gain insight into issues and discover innovative solutions. Leaders can learn how to be leaders of innovation, and this capability can be taught. This is not to say that innovative leaders who generate many innovative ideas are unimportant to organizations. The opposite is true. They are great resources, but this alone is not a sustainable model. When those people leave, it is not easy to replace them. Also, when those leaders work in teams, they sometimes dominate the discussions with their innovative ideas, which reduces the capability of others to contribute their insights and discover additional innovative solutions to challenging problems. In contrast, leaders of innovation cultivate a culture of question asking to ensure that silent voices are heard, and latent concerns are identified. They also leverage the diverse perspectives on a team in order to surface implicit assumptions and contrary viewpoints. They then facilitate the discovery of innovative solutions by integrating perspectives, and assessing outcome probabilities, and then iterating as reality unfolds.
Many unsuccessful approaches have led organizations to quick solutions with the hope that they will fix their problems immediately. However, sustainable innovation is built on three core principles that can be developed and built on effectively, which will ultimately help organizations transform into a culture that allows innovation to emerge.
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Dr. David Weiss
President & CEO of Weiss International Ltd
Dr. David Weiss is the President & CEO of Weiss International Ltd, an international consulting firm based in Toronto that focuses on strategy, specializes in developing leaders of innovation and executive coaching. He also is visiting faculty at the executive development programs of three universities. Previously, he was the VP and Chief Innovation Officer of a multinational consulting firm, and Affiliate Professor and Senior Research Fellow at a major North American University. Dr. Weiss has written seven books including the best-selling business books Innovative Intelligence and The Leadership Gap, and five of his books have been reviewed by EBSCO. David has conducted executive sessions in Canada, USA, England, France, China, Russia, Malaysia, Israel, Uganda, South Africa, and Chile. His doctorate is from the University of Toronto and he has three master’s degrees. He was honored as the first lifetime Fellow of the Institute for Performance and Learning, recipient of the “Distinguished Lecturer” certificate from the Government of Canada and honored with the “HR Leadership Award” at the Asia-Pacific HR Congress. Follow over 15,000 followers/connections of Dr. David Weiss on Twitter at @DrDavidWeiss and on LinkedIn at David.Weiss@weissinternational.ca. For more information and to download over 40 additional articles by Dr. David Weiss, see www.weissinternational.ca