As with any top-down initiative, the way leaders behave sends strong signals to employees. Innovation is inherently associated with change and takes attention and resources away from efforts to achieve short-term performance goals. More than initiatives for any other purpose, innovation may therefore require leaders to encourage employees in order to win over their hearts and minds. Our sample of managers and professionals indicated that the top two motivators of behavior to promote innovation are strong leaders who encourage and protect it and top executives who spend their time actively managing and driving it.
Indeed, senior executives believe that paying lip service to innovation but doing nothing about it is the most common way they inhibit it. The failure of executives to model innovation—encouraging behavior, such as risk taking and openness to new ideas, places second. Rewarding nothing but short-term performance and maintaining a fear of failure also make it to the top of the respondents' list of inhibitors.
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Holding leaders accountable for encouraging innovation makes a big difference. Thirty percent of the senior executives in the survey were accountable for it, through formal targets or metrics, in their performance reviews. They were more likely than the broader group of respondents to view innovation as one of the primary growth drivers, to manage it formally as part of the leadership team or through an innovation council, and to learn from their failures to achieve it.
Our research implies that most senior executives do not actively encourage and model innovative behavior. If they did, they could give employees the support needed to innovate. They can also take a number of other practical steps to advance innovation. Senior executives say that the top three ways they spend time making decisions about innovation involve determining what types or strategies to focus on, who gets to work on the resulting projects, and how to commercialize the fruits. Few spend time on targets, metrics, and budgets for innovation.
That is telling, since executives whose companies do have such targets and metrics feel the greatest confidence in their decisions. Chances are your organization has some people who are passionate about innovation and others who feel uncomfortable about any topic related to change. Recent academic research finds that differences in individual creativity and intelligence matter far less for innovation than connections and networks—for example, networked employees can realize their innovations and make them catch on more quickly.
Since new ideas seem to spur more new ideas, networks generate a cycle of innovation. Furthermore, effective networks allow people with different kinds of knowledge and ways of tackling problems to cross-fertilize ideas. By focusing on getting the most from innovation networks, leaders can therefore capture more value from existing resources, without launching a large-scale change-management program. Social-network analysis can help executives to diagnose existing networks in order to ascertain their characteristics, such as the frequency of collaboration and the degree of cross-functional interactions among members, and to identify people who broker information and knowledge.
This kind of information can also serve an essential role in the creation of effective innovation networks by clarifying the mind-sets of individuals and groups. In one company, for example, we found three groups with distinct perspectives on innovation. One believed that the company was innovative, but the other two, with 57 percent of its employees, thought that it wasn't—indeed, that it was actually bureaucratic, slow moving, inefficient, and stressful. A separately developed network map highlighted the company's hierarchical structure but also showed that cross-functional departments were well connected.
When we combined the analysis of personal perspectives on innovation with the network map, we found opportunities for improvement. Paradoxically, the analysis revealed that those employees, largely middle managers, with the most negative attitude toward innovation were also the most highly sought after for advice about it. In effect, they served as bottlenecks to the flow of new ideas and the open sharing of knowledge. A further analysis of the people in this group highlighted their inability to balance new ideas with current priorities and to behave as leaders rather than supervisors.
We have observed that middle managers pose similar challenges in many organizations. Senior management used this analysis to create a network of middle managers who were encouraged to generate newer and bigger ideas.
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Members of the network regularly discussed new ideas with senior executives, and these ideas were evaluated collectively by mutually agreed-upon criteria. Shaping innovation networks is both an art and a science. Any network is unpredictable and, in the end, impossible to control. Focusing on the replacement of one or two ineffective members has less impact than establishing the conditions for vibrant networks and taking advantage of the connections through which they flourish.
Making networks more decentralized is another way to improve collaboration and performance Exhibit 1. Consider the case of two geographically separate units that undertake the same activities. A larger leadership group with an open and positive mind-set is a distinguishing feature of the higher-performing unit. Its information network is also more decentralized, with a larger number of connections. Hierarchy is still evident in the higher-performing unit, but its information and knowledge network is more distributed, and more of the members participate actively.
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The lower-performing unit has just one leader, who controls most of the interactions and has a negative mind-set about openness and collaboration, and there are far fewer connections. The network design is more centralized. The four critical steps in designing, implementing, and managing an innovation network are presented in Exhibit 2. In addition, executives can fine-tune the network's goals by identifying the appropriate mix and balance of employees. Innovation networks, like cross-functional teams, require different skills and attitudes.
In our experience, they include combinations of several archetypes:. This kind of staffing is clearly an inexact science. A team or network in need of more ideas might get additional idea generators to fill the gap. If the challenge is commercializing the right ideas, management might opt to add producers and experts. In our survey of professionals, respondents who regarded their companies as more innovative than competitors in the same industry were also more likely to work for companies that had larger numbers of producers.
Senior executives say that making top talent available for projects to meet innovation goals is their single biggest challenge in this area. Some 40 percent of them also believe that they do not have enough of the right kinds of talent for the innovation projects they pursue.
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A different view emerges from below, however. Employees are more likely to believe that their organizations have the right talent but that the corporate culture inhibits them from innovating Exhibit 3. We, for our part, believe that defining and creating the right kind of culture, however elusive, greatly increases the prospects for successful and sustained innovation see sidebar, "Many paths to success". Managers and employees broadly agree about the attitudes, values, and behavior that promote innovation. Topping the list, in our research, were openness to new ideas and a willingness to experiment and take risks.
In an innovative culture, employees know that their ideas are valued and believe that it is safe to express and act on those ideas and to learn from failure. Leaders reinforce this state of mind by involving employees in decisions that matter to them. Respondents to our survey of executives and managers indicated that trust and engagement were the mind-sets most closely correlated with a strong performance on innovation.
In the same survey, 46 percent of the professionals surveyed said that they were far more likely to seek out a trusted colleague than an expert or manager to get new ideas and feedback on their own ideas. To learn more about how innovation is managed at companies where it is a priority, we identified senior executives who, in our fall survey, had described their company that way and invited them to join an online discussion. One major topic was how leadership groups manage innovation. Discussion participants describe a wide variety of approaches to innovation ownership, the degree to which it is part of their leadership agenda, how to motivate innovators, and how innovation-related performance metrics are applied to leaders and to innovators.
Our leadership team starts the day with the discussion of innovation. Some topics are discussed over months again and again to check if our first decision on it is still OK or if we need to make a change. In our company, that balance seems to be effective in guiding the conversation. The latter approach tends to work better for us, by keeping innovation active and real as opposed to [being] a separate thing.
Several participants actually caution against too much discussion. That said, we recognize the potential to dive into rat holes or digress into too much detail. We try to be careful to keep our discussion on track and meaningful All talk and no action is not a recipe for success! Beyond the leadership team, discussion participants stress the importance of ensuring that innovation is clearly understood and employees are engaged, to varying degrees, throughout the organization. We can speak about it a lot but we want the conversation to continue after the meeting, without us around.
But executives are dubious about how much they can really do. Others find it quite difficult and frustrating, especially those who have worked in the company for many years.
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One of our greatest challenges is to make the process constantly evolving. In managing innovators, one of the biggest challenges for many companies is measuring the contributions of these people. We do have continuous improvement targets [for business units] that clearly generate innovation. I have also made meditation part of my routine. A very enlightening course. When I do better, the people on my team will do the same. Inspiration is so important in life. The quality of the teaching is outstanding, the agenda perfect, and the opportunities for personal interaction very enriching.
In , he received the Dean's Award for Teaching Excellence. He is regularly involved with many Fortune corporations in strategy consulting and leadership development. In addition, Wadhwa has been at the forefront of bringing executive education online with the launch of his two online programs on Personal Leadership and Driving Strategic Impact.
Honors in mathematics from St. Stephens College, University of Delhi, where he graduated top of his class. Along with Professor Wadhwa, additional Columbia Business School faculty contribute to and teach in the program. Contact Liz N.
How Important Is “Executive Intelligence” for Leaders?
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