The Psychology of Innovation

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Sharan Gohel

In a recent survey conducted by Mckinsey more than 70 percent of the senior executives said that innovation will be one of the top three drivers of growth for their company in the next three to five years. Other executives reported innovation as the most important way for companies to accelerate the pace of change in today’s global business environment.

Innovation and Creativity are two words that we all use interchangeably and generally agree are positive. In most cases we want more, yet there seems to be less alignment when we try and define it and no real shared interpretation of innovation/creativity. Similarly Leadership is also a term which does not seem to have a commonly accepted definition or shared understanding. Being creative or innovative and Leadership are closely related as leadership always seems to have some focus on bringing about a change resulting in a better future.

More often than not when you read books and articles on leadership, you will hear leadership defined in a number of different ways such as:

  • the ability to create a vision
  • anticipate trends
  • being congruent in the way leaders live their values (value-congruence)
  • being empowering
  • understanding their own impact on others (self-understanding)

Within the competencies mentioned above there is an assumption that the individual has the capacity to be more creative and consider more risks. However in order to be competent they will need to utilize and increase their capacity to be creative and take risks – having the capacity to develop new ideas and take risks to make the ideas a reality in the face of adversity. Therefore before leadership it is important to consider these two factors and the role they play. In this short article we will begin to explore the relationship between leadership and innovation or creativity and the impact risk taking can have on their success through each leadership competency.

Vision: It is widely accepted that effective leaders are able to create a vision for the organization’s future; a picture that inspires people; a statement to action giving a shared purpose for all. Through such a vision, people in the organization are able to see the relationship they have to the larger realities/goals of the enterprise. But without creativity, how can you create a vision? And how can you make a vision happen if you’re not willing to take risks to make it happen? A vision without creativity is dull and insignificant. A vision without risk taking never happens.

Value-Congruence: Leaders who are congruent in the way they live out their values are those that inspire people to follow them and essentially ‘walk the talk’. A leader who uses his or her values to guide and motivate others is able to provide meaning to people’s lives within organizations. In extreme cases they become the standards by which choices are made. However it is easy to walk and talk your values when you’re not faced with a challenge or when you “fit in”. But if your values run against the norm, then that’s when creativity and risk taking are required. Leaders must take the risk to “walk the talk”. Or, they run the risk of losing their capacity to lead.

Anticipatory Skills: Foresight is fundamental to leadership. An effective leader intuitively and systematically scans the environment for potential areas of opportunities and risks. The leader’s focus is on servicing customers (internal and external) in new ways, finding new advantages over competitors, and exploiting new company strengths. Being anticipating requires the leader to look outside your immediate view, being on alert for new upcoming ideas -looking for creative new trends that may impact you and your organization. At the same time a Leader must be willing to take the risk of thinking outside the box and their own paradigms - challenging their own mental models. It is the anticipation which drives an organization forward. Looking for opportunities to use creative abilities and taking the risk of thinking outside the realms of conventional methods -of what has been to is what will help create the new trends that are the keys to success.

Empowerment: This is not about blind trust, it is about giving those who you are leading responsibility for doing jobs and performing in ways that demonstrates your confidence in their abilities. The concept of empowerment embodies in it a level of trust in your employees, trusting that they can be creative with new ideas that come from them. This means that as a leader to be empowering you need to take the risk to let them determine and drive the ideas forward without you micromanaging them.

Self-Awareness: For a leader, understanding yourself is critical. Without it, leaders may do more harm than good. To be an effective Leader you must have introspective skills as well as frameworks with which to understand the impact on others. Leaders seek to understand themselves and what a risk that can pose, through understanding and making choices about yourself given that self-understanding. Knowing yourself and being able to share with others “who you are and what your strengths and weaknesses are” puts a leader in an extremely vulnerable, difficult but necessary position, probably one of the ultimate risks a leader faces.

So I would like you to challenge you as leaders to think about whether we may have missed a key component in effective leadership? If we agree that leadership is about the capacity to identify new opportunities and drive forward change within our organizations; then without fostering leadership competencies around innovation/creativity and risk taking, how can we as leaders take advantage of the opportunities we have in a global marketplace?