Leadership, innovation and the future

2015

The next wave of great innovative ideas won't come from environments in which leaders control and micromanage employees. Innovation only thrives in organizations whose members are free to think and openly express themselves. And environments where members can freely confront the status quo are cultured through the behavior of their leaders.

We need to remember that innovation is really change - and change is a mental readiness that easily permeates organizations where members are entrusted to produce high quality work. Innovation is a new way of thinking, often challenging old ideas.

Investing in the Future

Investment in new technologies is risky, but necessary. Investment in innovation and technological change is essentially a self-fulfilling prophesy. Look to where company leaders are spending corporate development money and you'll see evidence of innovative ideas.

For example, per the results of a 2009 study, innovation research is currently being funnelled toward environmental technologies, such as improvements in energy conservation, efficient packaging, and architecture. Hardly a day goes by without seeing articles on energy, shipping, and construction science.

A caveat when it comes to technological innovation is the danger of thinking of new ideas in vacuums rather than as components of a larger purpose. That's what knowledge is, the ability to apply what is known about one system and transfer those factors to others.

It's risky to think of the future as either product or process without combining the two with purpose. Innovative ideas grow in complex environments of constant change, uncertain competitive threats, vacillating market demands, and most importantly, respect for knowledge and purpose.

Manager-Leader Role and Organizational Behavior

How leaders behave correlates to how freely organizational members pump out new ideas and products. Leaders are the key factors in establishing environments conducive to innovative thinking. Employees in innovation-friendly organizations are trusted teammates, not enemies. They are trustworthy, supportive, and energetic (beware: occasionally a renegade will slip in).

Remember, the ultimate purpose of any organization is to promote productivity and quality. Optimal levels of productivity and quality are not easily reached without constant care and feeding by outward thinking, emotionally intelligent leaders.

Complicating this quest to create the future is the reality that although innovation is necessary for survival, the daily business keeps rolling along. The challenge for leaders is to motivate current operators while simultaneously stimulating research and development. Often those who work in routine areas of the operation feel left behind and out of the limelight.

The important thing to remember is that the results of current operations are what fund new ideas, so the entire business, both sustainment and research, should be equally important to managers and leaders.

Knowledge is the new competitive tool. Keeping knowledge on track and in the right direction is essential to organizational productivity and innovation. Attracting knowledge-talent (those great minds who know how to come up with new ideas) is the new objective for leaders. Good leaders who foster innovative cultures are good at mentoring employees to reach inventive potential.

Such leaders establish cultures that are supportive, friendly, collaborative, and fun. They know how to make the future exciting, not frightening. Forward-thinking leaders are realists, admitting that development roadblocks are inevitable and that new ideas are products of evolutionary development. But these leaders also have a talent for encouraging employees to push through roadblocks and envision results of evolutionary thought, even nudging it along. Innovation or change becomes an encouraging motivator and not a fearful encounter.

Emotionally intelligent leaders know how to assess cultural idiosyncrasies, moving the organizational climate toward productive and harmonious ends. Leaders high in emotional intelligence are sensitive to employee needs, thereby equipping them with the insight to connect employee attitudes with organizational purpose.

Under emotionally intelligent leaders, innovation becomes part of the culture. Innovation, then, truly becomes a new way of thinking, not simply a product goal.

Innovation and Social Unity

Innovative ideas swirling through organizational environments of social trust encourage open discussion between members of multiple organizations. For example, look how Amazon collaborated with competitors, successfully turning potential enemies into trusted friends.

But a note of caution is worth sounding here: the challenge of operating in socially collaborative ways is figuring out how to remain competitive while exchanging ideas with potential competitors. Collaborative strategies can be tricky: share too much and a competitive edge can fade away. Share too little and industry trust disappears.

This article is not so much about understanding how to cultivate innovation friendly environments as much as understanding a transformational leader's role in fostering cultures where employees are free to think and experiment.

Culture is a set of attitudes and beliefs, or the way organizational members think about their environments. The way organizational members think will correlate to how likely they will accept and invent new ways of doing things. Positive leader behavior is the main ingredient in cultures where employees identify with, and support their organizations.

Predicting the future is possibly more art than science. Add too many variables to the mix and the view of the future becomes muddy. Likewise, prediction is not about dogmatic accuracy. Instead, predicting the future is about increasing knowledge which helps decision makers know where to invest resources.

In other words, preparing for the future, fostering innovation, investing in productive research and educating employees to understand organizational purpose are all related - and their common denominator is leader behavior.

"The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas." Dr. Linus Pauling

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About The Author

Duane Dike
Duane Dike

Duane Dike is the manager of creative production for a large entertainment company in Southern California. He has a doctorate in management and organizational leadership and an MBA in management. He is a popular guest speaker for education and management groups on subjects related to innovation, leadership and thinking.