Home Leadership Six tips for ensuring innovation starts from the top down

Six tips for ensuring innovation starts from the top down

by Guest Writter
John Sweeney & Elena Imaretska, Co-authors, The Innovative Mindset: 5 Behaviors for Accelerating Breakthroughs

As leaders, we typically oversee finance, operations, marketing, communications, human resource and even innovation officers. We empower individuals in these roles to evaluate, orchestrate, strategize, create, hire and innovate. However, sometimes there is a common misconception that empowerment is a handoff, and for many things it is, but when it comes to innovation, it has to start from and reside at the top.

The ever-important culture that we foster in our organizations begins with our everyday behavior, outlook, commitment and openness to new thinking. Just as leaders deliver big picture messages and strategy, so too do we set the tone for how we as an organization innovate.

However, we often forget about everyday behavior, because in a way it is so basic that the big thinkers—the super smart innovation architects—can assume that everyday behavior is a given that will automatically change once a great system is in place. The old saying “Everything looks like a nail to a hammer” can be an appropriate way to think about the manner in which innovation programs are structured—and often the teams who work on those programs forget a very basic ingredient of a successful innovation effort: the people—and all their fears, emotions, and humanness—who need to fuel it.

Innovation is about people and their assumptions and subconscious thought patterns (a.k.a. their mindset) and their daily actions and habits that stem from that mindset (a.k.a. their behavior). Put all those together, add some procedures, rewards and penalties, social dynamics, unspoken rules—and a pinch of stress—and you get a wonderfully messy, organic, and complex environment. An environment in which behavior, not lip service (although words are also important), drives the results. If you fail to address that daily behavior, even the greatest strategy and plan to drive innovation are doomed to fail.

The managerial culture that strives for efficiency, leanness, speed, and quality is often in conflict with the innovation culture that calls for space for experimentation, learning from mistakes, and time to make unexpected connections through exploration.

Here are six tips that you as a leader can implement to help instill and grow a business environment that not only welcomes, but also thrives on innovation:

1. Your behavior matters.

As the leader of a company your behavior is amplified and seen as the true north to how things are done in the company. Your words do not matter, if you behave contrary to them!

2. Your words do matter when they are aligned with your actions.

Language is a powerful tool to rally and unify people – especially around innovation. Choose sticky language, use it, help people make it their own to align and inspire people to embrace an innovative mindset and innovation behaviors.

3. Strive to decrease status.

Be human, real and authentic to encourage participation in innovation activities and initiatives.

4. Show up!

Be present and supportive for all innovation related events and initiatives. Being engaged sends the message that innovation is important and worthwhile of your time, which means it is important and worthwhile for the people who you lead.

5. Be bold in your behavioral declaration.

Create a behavioral manifesto or credo. Publicly state that you will personally strive to uphold the behaviors you have stated in the credo.

6. Frequently ask others to evaluate, metric and assess your behavior based on your declaration.

Inviting constructive criticism demonstrates your desire for continuous improvement and a willingness to change – two key elements of innovation.

We all know that how we play with others, function in a team, communicate and collaborate is key to the success of innovation and what better place to start than from the top. The Innovative Mindset reevaluates the nature of innovation and shows how a change in perspective can lead to more dynamic, successful endeavors.


About the Author

John Sweeney is the co-owner and executive producer of the Brave New Workshop, America’s oldest satirical comedy theatre. He uses his 20+ years of improvisational performance, speaking and training to influence human behavior and to create simple but groundbreaking tools that have ignited cultures of innovative behavior within such companies as Microsoft, PWC, General Mills and UnitedHealthGroup.

Elena Imaretska is vice president of New Products, Partnerships, and Sustainability for the corporate speaking and training business of the Brave New Workshop. She is the architect of the learning model and core curriculum of the organization’s offerings and has spent the past 8 years optimizing the business application of the improvisational approach to innovating, collaborating and leading.

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