How Innovative Leaders Foster Team Innovation

3 Key Skills to Innovative Leadership

Former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson once said, “He who rejects change is the architect of decay. The only human institution that justifiably rejects progress is the cemetery.” We are creating change more rapidly as a society, and people are open to change now more than ever. The reason that people generally do not resist the change that comes about in technology is, for the most part, the belief that technology improves their lives. People see the change as beneficial and that’s one of the key elements that energizes people to embrace it. By identifying and supporting opportunities for change and innovation, leaders improve their organization’s chances of remaining relevant in the future.

Change Leadership and Management

Not all change is good. Change leadership involves selecting the key changes that are worth making and then changing the habits and processes that support those changes and allow teams to be effective. Managing the tensions between making changes and honoring tradition is part of the process. Leaders walk the line between helping those who embrace change versus those who do not. Most people do not resist change simply because it is changing; people often welcome some changes, such as improved technology, that they believe will have a positive impact on their lives. They resist change when they believe it carries a shortcoming.

There are four key reasons people resist change: (1) They do not believe it will benefit them; (2) they do not think the sacrifices they will make will be worth the benefits; (3) they did not help to create the change and lack ownership; and (4) they mistrust the architects behind the change. You can imagine how multiple reasons can apply to one change, compounding dissatisfaction, and resistance.

In part, the leadership necessary to create innovation hinges on the way managers have handled changes in the past. A team environment conducive to change evolves as team members feel included, feel supported, and feel safe to engage. Leaders are tested on how well they enact change.

The underlying problem is really a lack of communication. Without clearly communicating the benefits of the change, there is little hope the organization would succeed in getting immediate acceptance or broad support. Suppose the new system was the best available, and based on analysis, worth the sacrifices required for full implementation. Unfortunately for the change leaders, no one performing the operations understood the need or benefits prior to the change taking place. George Bernard Shaw famously said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that is has taken place.”

Leaders must communicate clearly the need for change and how employees’ jobs will be affected. Influential change leaders always predetermine the benefits that the change will provide to the affected employees. “What is in it for me?” is one of the pertinent questions on the minds of those asked to embrace change.

Continuous Improvement

The symbolism of the laurel wreath began in Ancient Greece where victorious athletes were given one to wear on their heads. The laurel was believed to be a sacred plant, declared by the god Apollo after his true love was turned into a laurel tree in Greek mythology. The laurel wreath was given to winning athletes competing in the Phythian Games beginning around the 6th century BC. The symbolism of the laurel was later adopted by the Olympic games, and later still by the Romans who presented laurel wreaths to military commanders to honor their victories. Today, the laurel wreath is still a symbol of great accomplishment and accolades. Perhaps most famously used to recognize those who have made great contributions to mankind as a Nobel Laureate.

However, after achieving a great victory or accomplishment, some people might tend to “rest on their laurels.” This is to say that they become so tied up in their former achievements and glory that they neglect to improve upon them going forward. Neglecting to continuously improve on former successes quickly exposes individuals and organizations to a future of mediocrity.

Change is never done in an organization that understands the need for continuous improvement. People tend to be bothered by things that are not done—everyone loves closure. This tendency can make people uncomfortable with continuous improvement, and this causes organizations to get trapped on autopilot; people would rather do things the way they have always been done than try something new to improve.

Never think of improvement as being complete. Changes happen all the time in the business environment: people and organizations require adaptation to remain relevant. But continuous improvement does not mean that your job is to change everything. If you had to change all your habits every day, you would not get through the day! As the leader, your job is to create sustained excellence through continuous, strategic improvement. So, how can you encourage continuous improvement through innovation in your organization? Make sure you encourage innovation and avoid any barriers to change that you might have encountered from your team. There are three common barriers to innovation that exist in many organizations: the boss, arbitrary rules and regulations, and self-confidence.

Complex Thinking

Over the last decade, many industries across the world have experienced rapid change, and this pace may not slow down anytime in the near future. This presents some challenges to CEOs, specifically to their ability to lead in change and to hire and develop adaptable managers.

Like many companies, in the past Procter & Gamble shrouded its products in secrecy. Sharing trade secrets is not normally considered a way to grow in a proprietary market. But some years ago, Procter & Gamble decided that it needed to stimulate more innovation. The company decided to open up its ideas to a few trusted suppliers and vendors so that they could get ideas and perspectives.

Starting with the Pampers division of the company, Proctor & Gamble invited key suppliers to come in to view the formerly secretive process used to make the Pampers baby diapers. One of the vendors was a company that, among the many things it manufactured, made golf balls. The company had big equipment that would spin rubber around the core to make the balls. When they looked at the process that Procter & Gamble used to make Pampers, they said, “That’s almost exactly the way we make golf balls. We could do this for you, and in fact, we could insert at the bottom of the diaper a rubber band so that the diapers would fit more snugly and stay up on the baby.”

Innovation was born at that moment. Pampers enjoyed a huge rise in popularity, and they distanced themselves from their competitors. The environment for conducting business, whether for profit or not for profit and whether private or public, is more complex than in the past. Leaders adept at complex thinking will be more likely to adapt to complex environments. Like the example with Procter & Gamble, organizations with leaders who weigh the costs and benefits of doing things differently than has been done in the past create advantages for their teams to compete.

Innovation is the spark that drives competitive advantage and strategic change. People do not resist change; they resist change they do not perceive to be beneficial. Foster innovation in your team by being open to new ideas, tolerant of mistakes, ready to explore different ways. There is nothing wrong with change if it is in the right direction.

Core Competency: Fosters Innovation

Identifies, supports, and champions opportunities for change and continuous improvement. Demonstrates flexibility and adaptability in responding to change and ambiguity.

Competency Skills
  • Change Leadership and Management: Role models and implements new initiatives effectively within teams and organization
  • Continuous Improvement: Ongoing effort to develop new and better ideas and new ways of solving problems
  • Complex Thinking: Adapts approach and develops the best solution to difficult issues involving changes in environment or facts

The Innovative Leader’s Toolkit

Identify a change that went well. What made this change initiative successful? Now, identify a change in your organization that did not go so well. What were the contributors or learnings from this initiative? For both examples, identify what the key leaders did to support or not support the change.