Late 2008 not only marked the beginning of the Great Recession, but a pivotal moment when many CEOs began neglecting innovation — the engine that drove their organizations’ growth up to that point — to focus on cost-cutting, retrenchment and, in many instances, survival.
That moment has passed. Innovation has returned to its rightful place as a top focus area for executives. In The Conference Board’s 2012 CEO Challenge study, innovation was identified as the top CEO priority. This renewed interest confirms the importance of innovation to organizations now.
But just as no CEO concerned about his or her organization’s long-term success can ignore innovation, no amount of focus from the chief executive will drive sustainable innovation unless the organization’s leaders — at all levels —create and reinforce a culture where innovation can flourish. This is a truth and a risk because leaders may not actively step up and do what they need to do to drive innovation.
This is of particular concern as some things leaders must do fall beyond, and may conflict with, their normal work styles. When leaders do what they need to, innovation thrives. When they don’t, talent management consultant Development Dimensions International’s (DDI) “Creating the Conditions for Sustainable Innovation” survey shows a different picture.
For this research, DDI, in partnership with LUMA Institute, surveyed 513 leaders and 514 non-leaders in the U.S. and asked about the frequency with which leaders demonstrate innovative behaviors, the innovation climate in the organization and how innovation is prioritized alongside other objectives in the leaders’ own work group and the organization as a whole.
Connecting the Leader’s Role
DDI sought answers to a question that should be on every leader’s mind: “How do you institutionalize innovation so it can be done in a repeatable and sustainable way, spanning the entire workforce, and bring measurable business value?”
Research data produced a model that summarizes the overall context in which innovation occurs (Figure 1). This model identifies the organizational challenges that inhibit innovation, things that everyone in the organization will ultimately encounter, and it details what leaders need to do to create and sustain an environment in which associates are motivated and enabled to innovate.
Leaders are challenged to:
Inspire curiosity: Encourage others to expand their understanding of internal and external stakeholders: who they are, how they are interdependent and the unique contexts in which each one operates.
Challenge current perspectives: Help others view problems and opportunities differently and envision alternative possibilities.
Create freedom: Empower experimentation, risk taking, learning from mistakes and valuing effort over perfection.
Drive discipline: Help others identify execution implications early and often, and align efforts to ensure successful implementation of innovative solutions.
Using these four innovation leader roles as a starting point, DDI sought to explore how effectively leaders are performing them. Twenty specific leadership behaviors tied to these challenges were identified, covering activities such as asking thought-provoking questions to driving exploration of new possibilities, promoting employee-driven research and experimentation, and giving employees full latitude to choose the best path to accomplish their goals.
Results indicate when it comes to innovation leaders need to do much more.
Leaders aren’t actively engaged or personally invested in driving innovation. Researchers asked leaders to agree or disagree that they demonstrate each of the 20 leadership behaviors. The results suggest that when it comes to innovation, leaders do what comes easy more often than what’s needed.
Figure 2 lists the five behaviors that leaders most frequently perform, with “demonstrating unwavering openness and appreciation for unique ideas and opinions” topping the list. These behaviors are relatively passive and don’t involve the leaders taking a personal risk or shaking things up. In other words, they aren’t the behaviors that, on their own, are likely to drive true culture change in the organization.
A look at the five behaviors leaders perform less frequently (Figure 3) provides a glimpse into what is really happening. The behaviors leaders perform least are those that are more dynamic, active and demanding of the leader’s personal attention, and express a willingness to challenge the status quo. They also are the ones that tend to bump up against those things that leaders traditionally are expected to do, such as keeping employees focused on necessary day-to-day tasks.
That’s not to say that the common behaviors leaders exhibit aren’t important to drive innovation — they are — but they need to do what’s hard and what’s outside the norm, too. The results of DDI’s survey suggest that leaders are avoiding the more proactive innovation behaviors, a key limiter to widespread innovation amongst employees.
Leaders think they are driving innovation, but employees disagree. When Researchers grouped the 20 leader behaviors under the four innovation challenges in the model, analysts were able to see the differences between how leaders believe they support innovation and how employees view leaders’ behaviors.
Leaders agreed that they performed the behaviors at a much higher rate than employees agreed that their leaders performed the behaviors, but there was a difference between the agreement rates of leaders and employees across all four innovation challenges. There was a 23 percent difference in agreement rates between leaders and employees on behaviors related to inspiring curiosity, and this was the smallest gap. All three other innovation challenges showed even wider disparities.
There was a 28 percent gap in creating freedom and 29 percent gaps in challenging current perspectives and driving discipline.
Organization-wide commitment matters. Leaders are a necessity for an innovation culture to emerge, but in true chicken-or-the-egg fashion, the opposite also appears to be true: Organizations with a strong commitment to innovation tend to have leaders who are more likely to perform innovation-related behaviors.
DDI asked leaders and employees to rate the strength of their organization’s commitment to innovation. Both leaders and employees rate leaders higher in their use of innovation-related behaviors in organizations where organization-wide commitment to innovation also garnered high marks. Further, there is a negligible difference between leader and employee agreement levels about the prevalence of innovation-related leader behaviors — far different from the aforementioned gaps between leaders and employees when the organizational commitment lens wasn’t applied to the responses. That is, the leader-employee gap, while common, is not inevitable.
What defines an organization with a strong commitment to innovation? One of the most important factors is a strong and clearly communicated innovation vision that aligns the leaders’ and employees’ efforts.
Leaders don’t see themselves as barriers. When new ideas are generated, leaders are the make-or-break deciders of which ones are accepted and advanced. This is a powerful role for a leader to play, as his or her judgment on a new idea’s merit not only can stop the idea dead in its tracks, it can kill an employee’s engagement in the innovation process. Likewise, accepting and championing an idea can help spur employees on to more and better ideas in the future.
Leaders at all levels share this power, but the impact of how they wield this power can vary significantly. The higher the leader is in the organization, the greater his or her potential to energize and mobilize hundreds of employees or whole business units and departments to drive and sustain innovation.
When DDI asked leaders what their team would identify as its greatest barrier to innovation regardless of the leader level, it found leaders are most likely to cast blame on the employees themselves and the information on which they base their ideas (Figure 4). Further, 35 percent of leaders at all levels characterize employees as fundamentally lacking the information to offer ideas of value. This perception is strongest at the senior level, where 41 percent of senior leaders believe employees lack the information needed to generate valuable ideas — but just 14 percent of senior leaders think their own failure to move employees’ ideas forward is the problem.
Essentially, employees believe leaders stand in the way of innovation. And while leaders may not agree, employee perception dictates that they must do more to be accepting of new ideas and keep employees engaged in innovation.
Leaders don’t need to be creative to drive innovation in their employees, but they do need to create a culture that not only makes innovation happen, it makes it sustainable, too. They can do this by applying the behaviors required to overcome the most critical innovation challenges: inspire curiosity, challenge current perspectives, create freedom and drive discipline.
Just as innovation matters more than ever, effective leaders have never mattered more to innovation. In today’s highly competitive marketplace, leaders must play a major role and create an environment where creativity and innovation flourish.
Evan Sinar is a manager for Development Dimensions International’s assessment technology group, and Richard S. Wellins is a senior vice president at the company. They can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.