Leadership Matters: Innovation Isn't Optional

Innovation does not require changing everything -- but it requires changing something. The important thing to remember is, in the end, it is a requirement.
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Please check back every Monday for more Leadership Matters columns by "Dr. Todd," founder of IMPACT Consulting and Development.

In the Art of War, Sun Tzu observes that, when troops are faced with no possible escape, they do amazing things.

Of course, in his example, the issue was that many of the troops could not swim so, positioned with the river behind them and the enemy in front of them, they would find ways to overcome the enemy. This was called the "death field" (rough translation), which is where many of our companies find themselves today.

After cutting costs as much as possible, reducing headcount to smaller numbers and eliminating marginally successful product lines, some leaders find themselves in the situation where they must move forward because there's no place left for a safe retreat.

I spent the last week conducting leadership seminars in Brazil and Mexico City. Mexico City especially is the capital of dealing with crisis. In the same week as the Swine Flu was announced and near panic took over in the country, a fair sized earthquake added insult to injury as people, following proper earthquake procedure, took shelter in areas where other crowds congregated. That turned out to be the wrong thing to do because of the Swine Flu. I'm convinced that the shut down of Mexico City was as much to allow people to calm down as it was to stop the spread of the disease.

Nonetheless, I was struck by the energy and optimism of the leaders in my IMPACT seminars because they have become experts at navigating crisis over the last few years. They have come to realize that "synergy" is not the same as cost-cutting but requires a willingness to approach business and employees in new ways. This innovative mindset is what will determine whether these countries and companies are able to sustain their areas of growth and become true players in the marketplace. The same is true of American companies; the most challenged being those with long legacies and internal cultures of "we've always done it this way."

There is a common saying that, "if you do what you've always done, you'll get what you've always got (sic)." I don't believe this is true anymore. I believe, if you do what you've always done, you will eventually become obsolete in the marketplace and will eventually disappear. Innovation is no longer something that should be defined by

Google

(GOOG) - Get Report

, or

Zappos

or

Apple

(AAPL) - Get Report

, but instead needs to be an integral part of your business and leadership approach. It is a necessity and, as such, we need to move it from the corporate-speak of "breakthrough ideas", "think outside the box" and "ideation" (one of my favorite hated words right now), and make it a strategic part of business planning and execution.

There are some specific challenges to innovation for you as a leader:

You can't do this alone:

For one thing, it is unlikely that you can innovate for your team or organization very well on your own. Innovation requires new ideas and perspectives and in order to get these, you need input from engaged and empowered followers. In this case, followers may not only be employees, but your customer base or even the world at large.

Procter & Gamble

(PG) - Get Report

, for example, has created an open-source innovation strategy called

"connect and develop"

that opens R&D to a wider community of interested parties. Of course this approach is worldwide, but there is nothing keeping you from adopting a smaller scale approach on your own, looking for inputs from employees, suppliers and customers. No matter how smart you are (and you're reading this, so that's a good sign), you must have others involved to create the real synergy of ideas necessary for innovation.

You have to take some risk:

One of the biggest challenges to innovative leadership is the willingness to take risks on new ideas. In my opinion, this is something of a flaw in traditional leadership thinking. The assumption underlying this risk aversion is that it is less risky to keep doing what you are doing than it is to try new approaches. However, it takes only a short scan of the environment to see that doing the same thing may be the riskiest approach. You might have been negatively impacted by circumstances outside of your control lately, but it's going to be your leadership and willingness to develop new approaches that moves you back to a position of success. Taking risks is in large part a state of mind. Innovation may be your safest play.

Focus is better than general innovation:

One of the reasons that internal "innovation programs" often deliver dismal results is because they are unfocused. You may have decided after your last employee suggestion box campaign that you have a lack of creative thinking in your team or organization. An alternative explanation is that you have asked people to be innovative in an unspecified way. Here's an adjustment that I can almost guarantee will have a near-immediate impact. Instead of asking your followers to give their "best ideas," implement a two-week program where you ask for their best ideas around a specific topic. Perhaps it is new products, or dealing with internal costs or even restructuring. Don't dumb-down the topic but put a genuine priority out for consideration. Give a limited time for input and encourage not just individuals, but groups of people, to submit their recommendation. You might be amazed at what you get.

As one of my Latin American seminar participants said: "It is easy for us to be creative. We know that we innovate or we die." While that may sound like a dramatic statement, look closely at what your team and organization is doing and you might find that, realistically, you are in the same situation. Innovation does not require changing everything -- but it requires changing something. The important thing to remember is, in the end, it is a requirement.

Leadership Development Specialist, L. Todd Thomas ("Dr. Todd") PhD, M.S, M.A, is Founder of

IMPACT Consulting and Development

. Dr. Todd holds a PhD in Human Communication, Masters in Educational Psychology and a Masters in Interpersonal Communication. He was a professor at North Carolina State University and Indiana University before leaving for the corporate world. He led Organizational Learning at Rockwell Avionics and was the executive responsible for Organizational and Executive Development at Daimler Financial Services for 10 years. Dr. Todd has coached and consulted with over 3000 leaders from 40 different countries spanning 4 continents. He is a speaker, seminar leader and the author of "Leading in a Flat World: How Good Leaders Become Greatly Valued." Other titles include "Life Lessons for Leaders" and "Stop Wasting Your Time: Creating High-IMPACT Meetings" as well as the "Leadership Integrity Quotient(tm)" leadership assessment.