Opinion: Leadership traits that inhibit innovation

by Contributor26 Sep 2016
Senior leaders hold the key to the extent and success of innovation within their organisation, writes Ivan Seselj, CEO of Promapp

Throughout the world, the pace of digital disruption is increasing by the day. Business models are being challenged, workplaces altered and career paths brought into question. Change has become the only constant.

To survive in this 'new normal' world, organisations must constantly strive to innovate. Those that do stand to succeed, while those that don't risk becoming irrelevant and closing their doors. The ability to innovate has suddenly been elevated from a 'nice-to-do' activity to being a survival factor.

Innovation has to cover every facet of an organisation's activity. All methods of work need to be challenged to determine whether they are adding maximum value. Product and service offerings must be constantly evaluated and improved to ensure they are meeting evolving market demands.

Inhibiting innovation
Senior leaders hold the key to the extent and success of innovation within their organisation. Without their direction and clear support, it simply won’t happen. This is because true innovation requires a level of risk-taking and failure that’s just not possible without this top-down support.
 
Unfortunately, there are two common leadership traits that can greatly inhibit innovation within an organisation. They are:
 
1. Solution leadership
Those who reach the ranks of senior management tend to be strong, confident individuals. They have often achieved a top position because they have taken responsibility and solved problems along the way.

Many of these leaders take a solution leadership approach where they use their skills and experience to solve problems and dictate which paths to follow and which projects to complete.   

This is not necessarily a good thing when it comes to innovation. Innovation is not aided by a leader who gets personally involved in every area and makes all the key decisions. A different approach is required.
 
Many fail to realise that they need to delegate responsibility and decision-making power to the teams undertaking the innovative projects. If they don't, the teams will feel subservient and constrained. As a result, they won’t have the confidence to take the risk and contribute to exploring innovative new ideas.

Innovation takes trust – leaders need to learn to let go and instead encourage the buy-in and participation from everyone within their organisation. They need to help their teams understand that innovation is a team effort and that those involved will have the support and freedom they require to make it happen.
 
2. Sending mixed signals
Senior managers may not realise it, but they can provide a lot of subtle signals to teams working on innovation projects that can have a significant impact on the likelihood of their success. Some of these signals can actually derail innovation efforts.

Much of the problem stems from the fact that innovation, by its very nature, involves a significant risk of failure.

For example, senior executives may fall back to focussing on short-term performance targets rather than longer-term goals. This can cause a team to question whether they should risk potential failures in search of improvement opportunities. As a result, future innovative ideas may be lost.

Executives may also send mixed messages by offering incentives geared to short-term deadlines. This can dissuade people from spending time on any activity that will not help them meet their quarterly numbers.

Another strong signal is when senior managers re-assign senior staff away from innovation teams and projects. This suggests to teams that the initiatives underway are not being taken particularly seriously, and are not a priority.  Teams might take the hint that it's not worth their time and effort to continue to participate and shift their focus elsewhere.
 
A different  approach
To encourage and drive innovation, senior leaders need to commit to a different management approach. They need to step up and lead by example, sending strong, consistent signals.

It must be clear to everyone in the organisation that innovation is key and that it will be supported as a long-term goal because it has the power to help drive growth and expansion, and outpace competitors.

In a world of constant disruption, an innovative culture is no longer an optional organisational asset, and unless the executive leadership team make innovation a priority, it will not happen.    
 

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