“It’s easy to come up with new ideas; the hard part is letting go of what worked for you two years ago, but will soon be out of date.”

— Roger von Oech

What’s the role of leadership in innovation and design thinking? The focus this week’s discussion was the role of organizations, management and business leaders in promoting, supporting and driving innovation. From participants in the course:

  • Frank Auffinger

“It depends on the level of the leader in the organization. At the upper levels, it is the leaders responsibility to define the corporate strategy, which plays a large part in the progress of innovation and establishes the direction of development activities. At the middle level, leaders need to be more active in progressing innovation according to the strategy. When an innovation has potential, it is up to leadership to remove blockers that could inhibit development of the innovation, or to determine if the innovation has merit and deserves contributions of time and resources. These dynamics play a significant role in innovation and design thinking. Finally, leaders should act as mentors and facilitators and should guide the organizational implementation of innovation and design thinking.”

  • Whittington (Chip) Vara

“All I would add to the previous comments are that good leaders that want to promote innovation and design thinking must clearly understand and communicate that change is going to occur and the organization should not fear the uncertainty that comes with that change. The question before all organizations is will they lead the change or simply follow the changes that result from innovations outside the organization. This requires the leaders to be curious and open to learning from others. Innovation needs to come from the bottom up and not directed from the top down. Finally, good leaders can promote innovation and design thinking by highlighting what the organization has learned from failure. This is not to celebrate the failure itself, but to celebrate the knowledge gained from the failure. “

Frank’s comments point to an active, visible leader, directing promoting and supporting innovation efforts. In parallel to this, Chip adds that change is inevitable and must be integrated into the behavior of the organization. Furthermore, with innovation coming from the bottom up, almost suggests a revolutionary tone, suggesting that the hierarchy sometimes needs to be ‘overthrown’ with innovation that disrupts the status quo.

What do the best leaders do to accelerate innovation?

  • Daniela Querqui:

“Encourage a culture of learning, and therefore where ambiguity, uncertainty and failure are OK.”

  • Ranya Badawi:

“I don’t know what the best leaders do, but I would guess that they do anything possible to promote innovative practices within the company and its employees and not only the products and services it offers. One practice that is vital to the innovation process is “breaking fixedness”. Since fixedness is everywhere inhibiting innovation, we will definitely find it within the company and its employees.” “Management could break this with practices like: changing the functions of its employees (same personas but with different people playing the roles). Structural fixedness could be broken by maybe, changing something in the structure of the building and seeing how employees react. Lock the main entrance to the building, for example (keep the side door open) and have the employees figure out how to get in and notice that there are other doors to the building. You know, anything that would break habits that employees keep repeating.”

The theme of failure and how to support risk taking comes up once again. The optimist will see the learning and growth obtained in the endeavor; the pessimist will call out the expenditures and losses.

From our five guest practitioners:

  • Cindy: Leaders put their money where their mouth is!
  • Doug: Fly air cover and support for the innovation ground troops.
  • Mike: Buy in.
  • Sally: Create a culture where diverse perspectives are respected.
  • Elizabeth: Change has to be a stated goal.

Cindy Tripp reminded us that there are some great innovation leaders out there. Leaders who willingly respond to the call of uncertainty, change, disruptive collaboration within their organization can experience profitable benefits not only for the company, but personally as well. Factors that drive the behavior of the organization can be viewed as a summation of individual motivation and drive.

Leaders need to make innovation personal. Creating a culture, from the top down, where innovation is encouraged appears to be a successful formula. Mike Clem reminds us again that there needs to be a bit of a designer in all of us, and this especially applies to management.