Innovation and Leadership: 7 Qualities Organizations Need for Success

In the January issue of Harvard Business Review, there was an article about the qualities of innovative company cultures. It’s a great read that you should check out when you have a moment.

My takeaway from the article was that innovation shouldn’t be viewed as happenstance. While there will always be those one-in-a-million stories about someone accidentally coming up with some breakthrough solution, most innovation is the result of careful planning, calculated risk taking, and sweat equity. This is good news for organizations. If you’re thinking, “Oh, our company simply isn’t creative enough.”, well that’s not true. Organizations can put the pieces in place to be more innovative. Here are four things to consider in building and maintaining an innovative culture:

It’s okay for employees to fail, but not to be incompetent. It’s time to move past the idea that failure means that someone isn’t smart or capable. Companies strive to hire the best people. They invest in training and development for employees (at least they should). Organizations set high standards for performance. Failure doesn’t mean employees can’t do the job. If it does, then managers have a different responsibility. It should be okay for employees to fail, as long as they’re capable and can recognize their mistake.

Employees can experiment, but only with a plan. Experimenting in the business world isn’t a synonym for doing things “willy nilly”. Organizational experiments should be viewed like the Scientific Method. Employees have a hypothesis and a plan. That way if something goes wrong (or right), the company knows the reason. Organizations should make sure the rules for experimenting are clearly outlined including what it takes to move forward with an idea as well as when ideas will be killed.

Psychological safety and candid feedback must be embraced. Speaking of things going wrong, innovation is going to prosper when employees feel comfortable speaking their minds. This doesn’t give employees license to be mean or malicious. Organizations must have cultures where employees feel they can confront issues without retribution. And all employees should be trained on how to effectively give and receive feedback. Everyone’s goal is the same – to achieve the best results for the company.

Individual accountability drives team dynamics. Having a common goal – like achieving the best results for the company – drives this quality. Sometimes individuals are able to work on teams without being held accountable for results. The team becomes the target of criticism instead of the individual employee. Organizations need to find a way to hire candidates with a high sense of personal accountability and reward actions that demonstrate it. When employees hold themselves accountable, it makes the team better.

I’m sure that, as you were reading these four qualities of innovative teams, you said to yourself, “All of these take strong leadership.” And you’re right. There are three qualities that leaders in innovative cultures must possess.

  1. Long-game Mentality: When it comes to building culture, there are no short-cuts. Leaders should be prepared to not only make big, bold changes but also small ones that will chip away slowly at the organization’s bad habits. The big challenge is figuring out which changes should be big and which ones should be handled via the long-game.
  1. Focused on Balance: It’s very easy to get intently focused on one aspect of company culture and lose sight of another. I read all of those articles about the perils of multi-tasking, just like you do. As leaders, we have to make sure that we keep all the balls in the air. When it looks like we’ve tipped the scales too far in one direction, then we need to shift back into balance.

Every organization wants to innovate at some level. Even if it’s simply to innovate their own processes to become more effective and efficient. But innovation doesn’t have to be a long-shot. It does take commitment, discipline and effective leadership.

Image captured by Sharlyn Lauby while exploring the streets of Salt Lake City, UT

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