Tuesday, July 7, 2015

What are the Top Traits of Innovative Leaders

Innovative leaders must be strategic as well, and they must take the risk in order to discover new opportunities that would lead the correct path.

With the increasing speed of change and continuous digital disruption, innovation in organizations is no longer "nice to have," but "must have" strategy and practice, because of the inevitability of competition, and uncertainty of business dynamic. There are many levels of innovation from incremental & iterative to evolutionary to breakthrough. If the cost of your product has to reduce to sustain in the market, then efficiency innovation is a must. If your current market has been disrupted by the new technology or other “brute forces,” then breakthrough innovation is needed to turn around the situation. Innovation is the top challenge for today’s leaders. Is this something you either have in your company, or you don’t? Leadership is one of the critical success factors for innovation. But who are the innovative leaders, and what are the main characteristics of a leader who "encourages innovation"?

Openness: Sometimes innovation is only characteristic in an open-minded leader. The leader views the whole picture and applies creativity in areas not tried. Being open to what your employees have to say and the way they feel is essential. They are the best resource for what is wrong and what needs to be fixed, versus what is working well already. Involving them in process improvement is key. Often small innovations around keep on happening and go unnoticed because those are taken for granted; because none is able to connect those with the larger picture. Leaders who are open, collaborative and willing to listen to employees are more likely to be successful innovators. Create a culture where the sharing of ideas are welcome and innovation is rewarded.
-LISTENING (and actually HEARING what is being said) by front line staff.
-MIRRORING (repeat it back to make sure you UNDERSTAND).
-VALIDATE ideas and suggestions, even if they cannot be implemented.
-EMPATHIZE with the problem/issue that brought about the suggestion/comment/idea.
-TAKE ACTION if you can; EXPLAIN *WHY* if you cannot.

Walk the talk: One very important thing to encourage innovation is also the ability to enable the employees to visualize the vision, take risks and above all the ability to tolerate mistakes and the courage to see the spade as a spade. Many leaders 'say' that they are ok with the new way to do the things, but exhibit the contrary. It is very important that employees not only 'hear,' but also 'see' that they can actually take risks, question the status quo without any fear of being put down/let down. Many leaders that 'say' "go ahead, and do it your way, let’s see what comes out"; but when the person actually did it, the reaction was " this is not how it is done, it's all wrong., etc." Result is no surprise that the employee never ever took up anything that was even remotely 'innovative.' The innovative leaders give the freedom to employees to do anything new and even if it fails, they learn from it and grow only to make better products in future, and that is where innovation thrived in every little thing they did. The culture of innovation is a gradual process and continuous one in that sense and a leader plays a very important role in ensuring that it sustains over time.

Flexibility: A leader who encourages innovation, first of all, shall allow an innovator to bend the rules as long as it is not harmful to the organization. As long as this flexibility is provided with necessary oversight by the management, All elements of risk-taking propensity and also proactive behavior will lead towards innovation. You have to remember that innovation can be a breakthrough and notice that it requires a “break.” They include being a risk taker, challenging the status quo, being fearless, looking at failure as a learning opportunity, and always looking for a better way. Leaders who encourage innovation have a learning organization, and one of the critical factors to having a learning organization is to make sure you have a feedback organization. It doesn’t mean once a year performance appraisal feedback. It means continuous feedback and openness to learning and personal growth. This is the basis. After that with people who have good personal insights into their talents, you need collaboration. No one innovates alone. You need synergy and collaborative teams with "liquid" talent flowing to where it’s needed.

Exercise, Discipline, Affection and Respect. Translated into what this means for humans: (1). Exercise. The leader must create the environment that encourages the exercise of the innovators and talents and affords them the chance to use their gifts as the major responsibility of their job. (2). Discipline. The best innovation leaders are specific about boundaries and limitations, the project design and performance parameters, budget, available resources for the project, timeline, and what success looks like. For the best innovation to occur, knowing what not to do and what resources are available is liberating. (3). Affection. Innovators of the highest order will get intrinsic rewards from the process but still need validation. The best leaders know what their people need and when they need it. (4) Respect. Respect - even in failure - must be an expectation at all levels. It's not sufficient for just your immediate supervisor to respect your 'not quite there attempts at innovation'; it must also be evident among peers, subordinates, and executive. Too often one person's failure is viewed as another person's opportunity to prove they're better. Those who do not demonstrate respect for others' failure will eventually undermine the culture of creativity.

Methodology: Some highly innovative companies have created a set of methods enable development of a company's innovation capability. At the core of the program is a customized business simulation, that lets participants experience the comprehensive problems and opportunities associated with creating and executing innovations at the company, and develop the critical capabilities to be successful in the future. Following the program, leaders are able to apply discovery thinking or the skills needed to both develop insights about emotional, economic, or functional customer needs and to create new options for meeting those needs. They are also able to develop execution skills, by managing uncertainty and approaching innovation projects as an experiment, testing ideas, assessing results, and having the fortitude to kill projects. Finally, they can create organization-wide alignment by cascading these skills across the company through effective innovation leadership.

Innovation is indeed key, and some leaders may even recognize the importance of it and they try to "force" it, but it does not really work. Innovation Leaders face a complex reality, environment plays an important role, every industry is different, enterprise culture is unique, Innovation leaders must be at the right moment (environmental opportunities), develop skills and knowledge, and use the right information available, to take the right decisions, with the right people, using the right methods, to give the best results. Innovation leader is not only a dreamer but also an action leader with 20% planning plus 80% action. He or she must be sensible to hear customers and connect with what a company can offer. They must be strategic leaders, and must take a risk in order to discover new opportunities that would lead the correct path. Innovation, like all business disciplines, requires capabilities that can be taught, practiced and mastered. This may sound simple, but it is not easy. It takes practice, practice and practice more.


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