Management Concepts recently identified 5 Essential NEW Leadership Habits for Federal Leaders. The second item on that list is “Seek new ways to experiment and ‘fail small’ to drive change and innovation.” Having worked as a leadership consultant and coach with dozens of Federal leaders, I’ve observed a few things about how leaders can drive innovation in an organization.
As a leader, do you want to innovate more? Don’t.
A more effective alternative is to give the opportunity for innovation to your employees. This will lighten your load, help employees grow, and best of all generate good ideas with faster buy-in.
First, you no longer have to feel the burden to come up with all the ideas. You already think about these things a lot, anyway, and whatever your own personal batting average on innovation, many Federal leaders report they too often feel “stuck” in creating meaningful change.
Second, it’s not simply burden-shifting. Delegating this responsibility opens huge doors for employee development, ownership, accountability, critical, creative and strategic thinking skills and engagement – all things you probably want. (You may have tried to develop these traits in employees before with less success.)
Here’s how it works, what you can do, and some parting thoughts. Fasten your seat belt, because this may be very different than what you’ve done up until now.
Break the Destructive Cycle: No More Top-Down Changes
Yesterday, I was coaching the leader of a huge organization. He was constantly struggling to solve problems and create change amidst foot-dragging, complacency and shoulder-shrugging. Encountering these, he intensified his efforts to create change which only created more resistance among employees. You already know the definition of insanity.
I coached him to share the problems and opportunities with his direct reports, to provide the context, facts and “the sitchie” and then ask the most motivating question a leader can pose: “What do you think?”
That’s exactly what he did, and his direct reports started coming up with solutions, got excited about pride of ownership of their ideas – this is very motivating – and got energized in a way the leader had never seen.
Remember, no one ever washes a rental car, and innovation that comes only from the top can be perceived as just more work or unwanted change – especially when the “why” behind the “what” is poorly explained, or not at all.
It got even better for the leader. He also reported that for the first time he was finding time to focus on the big picture, instead of being dragged into the weeds and fighting non-stop fires. The employees had started the weed whackers and were putting out the brush fires.
Create a New Cycle: Employee-Led Innovation
- Tell the story. Share as much information and context as you can – the good, bad and ugly, and don’t worry; your folks are adults with mortgages and really can handle the truth. Don’t withhold because they might be demotivated.
- Ask the most motivating question. You know what that is.
- Be sure to respond. This includes two actions. First, show genuine appreciation for the effort and ideas. Second, validate and go with what makes sense. If it doesn’t, rewind to context and share the information, priorities, values or experience you think makes the idea a non-starter. This helps employees get smarter, and create better ideas next time. (But don’t automatically rule out something just because it was tried by Bob in Accounting once in 1987 and didn’t work.) At all costs, do not fall into the familiar trap of not even acknowledging an idea, leaving the employee to wonder about what bottomless black hole in the universe swallowed it up. This is frustrating and demotivating, and sharply reduces the willingness to bother in the future.
- Implement and notice. Any innovation or change creates often complex ripple effects. Share information on what is happening good or bad as a result of the implementation. Remember that one person’s great idea is another person’s nightmare.
- This last step leads to the most important point of all. The real muscle being built when employees innovate is not so much the particular product – awesome as it may be. The gift that keeps on giving, as Cousin Eddie put it, is that employees start to think like innovators. They search for solutions, think about alternatives, want to contribute. It can be contagious, with others watching what is happening and wanting to get in on the action.
The mental processes and motivation behind innovation are the real benefit, and there is almost always more where that came from. These employees are the logical opposite of the checked-out, “I don’t know,” complacent and lost-hope employees. There are more of these than can be comfortable to admit – and this simply underscores the need to do something different to re-ignite potential.
But on top of this is an additional capacity built of systems thinking. As employees see the impact of their ideas beyond the silos, they gain a larger, more strategic sense of the whole organization, not just a narrow slice of the pie. As organizations lament the thin leadership pipeline or lack of succession planning, this is a prime way to make progress on building the bench.
As they engage in the fact-finding, root-cause analysis and stakeholder interest determination, employees invariably come across competing interests, agendas, constraints, win-wins, trade-offs, and blind spots (including their own, and maybe yours).
In case change creates the heebee-jeebies for you, it is good to remember that innovation doesn’t have to be sweeping, transformational and high-risk.
Innovation may mean things as basic as:
- A better business process
- New ways of running meetings
- New ways of connecting with those outside “the bubble”
- An IT shortcut
These may be “micro performance improvements,” as explained in the book Anytime Coaching.
But let’s not go too far with your own perspective here. Remember, your employees — closer to the action as they are — already have loads of ideas. All you have to do is ask (nicely).
Tips for Managing Innovative Employees
- Be sure that the innovation contains a business case, including its place in the strategic plan and what the agency cares about most. Again, discussing this makes employees smarter.
- Help employees make the case. They may need access to people, resources or other perspectives. Support them here. Help them build a smoking, compelling presentation that they are proud of.
- Also be sure to follow through. This may be the hardest phase of any innovation. It’s great to get excited about new ideas, but then the real work begins. All too often, what was hot yesterday has been eclipsed by something else hot today, attention and focus shift, and everyone wonders: What happened to that initiative? Stay in the game and persist. Finish the job. Steve Jobs said, “Real programmers ship.”
- Accept that it may fail. There is no such thing as innovation without risk. The same is true for leadership. This may sound like a platitude, but think about it. How often do you see cultures where leaders say “We were wrong,” or “We made a mistake.” Risk avoidance, blame-shifting and mental gymnastics to admit no wrong are too frequent to ignore. Remember that if you’ve ever dismissed out-of-hand an employee idea for change, the biggest barrier to innovation can be the resistance of the leader or manager. It’s important to assess your own level of risk aversion.
And In Conclusion: Remember to Keep an Open Mind
I worked with one Federal leader who said, “I love fresh eyes. People can come in here and see things that we overlook. I like to hear what they think. It keeps us fresh.”
Another, very different, leader said, “You only get to make the sausage when you get to a certain level.” Understanding the stark contrast in these worldviews and choosing well could be the most innovative thing you’ve ever done.