Workplace Culture

Wanted: New Leadership Mindsets to Generate Continuous Innovation

The traditional leadership mindset and style does not work well in an organization trying to create a culture for continuous improvement and innovation. Needed are leaders who embrace ambiguity, rapid change, and people skills like networking and inclusive relationship building.
— By Donna Chan

“We don’t do things that way,” says the manager to the employee. Right at that point, the manager has lost an opportunity to hear a new idea or perspective. Maybe the employee had a more efficient way of getting the work done or a new idea that needed exploration. The traditional leadership style is based on meeting deadlines, increasing productivity, and predictability when the new business environment requires new skills that enable an organization to meet evolving challenges on a routine basis. Continuing to manage by using the traditional approach to leading drags the organization and its talent down, creating higher turnover and lower productivity. Today, employees want to be engaged in their work, have authenticity, and believe they are contributing to business success. When they enjoy these qualities, innovation and creativity flows because employees know their ideas will be heard and their perspectives valued. The rapid pace of change means new leadership competencies are needed that are human-focused, including the ability to foster teamwork, manage and motivate a diverse workforce with new expectations, and recognize new opportunities for innovation amid what seems like disruption.

Finding Balance Between Traditional and Creative Leadership
In The Hard Truth About Innovative Cultures, author P. Pisano discusses the balance needed between the traditional rule-bound organization with managers skilled in discipline and accountability and the dynamic organization with managers who are collaborative, willing to experiment, non-hierarchal, tolerant of failure, and practice psychological safety. The second set of leaders qualities are those needed in an organization where innovation is the norm. Continuous innovation creates tension in the organization, and it is a fine line between squelching people’s motivation, willingness to share their creative ideas, and ability to flourish in uncertainty and keeping the organization on track in terms of use of resources and staying on mission. For example, learning through failure does not mean giving people the ability to take risks that are based on flawed analyses, poor designs and lack of transparency. Innovations based on these characteristics are likely to fail without anyone learning anything. Failed innovations should only be celebrated when they lead to learning.

So there is a need for a mix of conventional leadership with creative leadership that creates a culture of continuous improvement. This presents a good approach for leadership development. Organizations are not asking leaders to reinforce the traditional decision-making process. They are asking leaders to expand their mindset to embrace change and to learn how to identify opportunities for innovation. Change is swift today with new entries into every industry relentlessly pursuing and introducing new innovations. How do conventional leaders change their mindset? Most leaders are already overloaded with responsibilities, which is one reason why many are stuck in the conventional leadership mode.

Deloitte discussed the intersection of the traditional expectations and new leadership competences. Leadership is viewed within a new context. For example, organizational focus has traditionally been on individual leadership performance. The new context is a pace of change that needs leaders who work more closely with each other to develop integrated solutions. New leadership competencies need the ability to develop and foster team performance. The new context of a rapid pace of change across industries is forcing organizations to innovate in a never-ending cycle. Traditional focus of leaders has been on maintaining operational efficiency and performance, but the new competency leaders need to add is innovating to constantly improve operations and products or services.

When to Step In
As a leader in a dynamic business environment, managers must learn how to drive individual achievement, invent solutions to real challenges or problems while also developing the capability to identify opportunities for innovation. The leadership mindset for continuous innovation has some marked differences from the conventional mindset.

Managers must be able to tolerate ambiguity while being creative, and one strategy is learning to collaborate with functions like IT.
One difference is recognizing that dynamics must be allowed to play out in a diverse workforce, meaning managers would guide, but not step in to restore stability to the innovation process until creativity plays out. This takes a lot of patience and the ability to accept some work outside the normal course of work, active listening, and effective feedback. At some point, the manager must determine when it is time to make a decision, even when uncertainty still exists. The challenge is recognizing when innovation is happening and determining whether to go with it despite the organization’s previous strategies.

Rapid Change Needs Rapid Decision-Making
Much of the change taking place is due to a fast-paced technological evolution that presents opportunities for innovation. Researchers explored the role of leadership in a digitalized world, and found that leaders must be good communicators through digital media and manage the opposing impacts on employees. For example, digital tools provide employees autonomy while also driving them toward isolation. This harms networking and collaboration among employees. Managers need the ability to foster collaboration among employees, so must be able to integrate skills like active listening into the virtual communication systems. Another technology-based challenge is that rapid change creates the need for rapid decision-making, forcing leaders to make decisions without having time to think through the situation, when taking their time to create or nurture innovative ideas is a better response. Managers must be able to tolerate ambiguity while being creative, and one strategy is learning to collaborate with functions like IT. Non-hierarchal leadership is a key trait of organizations successfully driving continuous innovation.

There is no uniform strategy for changing a leader’s mindset, but there is agreement on one thing. Changing the mindset does not mean throwing out all conventional leadership traits. It does mean developing a new way of thinking that embraces change and ambiguity as paths to innovation. The leader’s goal is ensuring that following the path supports the organization’s mission at the same time.