Innovation: Grow It or Kill It

Fresh ideas signpost in the skyA CEO client of mine is struggling to grow his business revenue and market share. The good news is that he is getting new clients and contracts. The bad news is that he is frustrated with his leadership team’s inability to deliver the quality and service levels that are key to the company’s reputation. When we met last week, he was bemoaning a recent gaff – a client deliverable was sent out late due to last minute errors showing up in the work. This incident sharply illustrated that the desired business growth will be stymied by his leadership team’s inability to build operational infrastructure fast enough to support the new client expectations.

The CEO had a blunt request for me when we met: Would I train and coach his leader team to be more innovative? I asked him to describe for me what he needed. What is he seeing or not seeing that makes him believe that his team is not innovative? He responded: “My Directors and VP’s are totally focused on running the business day by day. They continuously execute existing processes and procedures without looking for new and better ways to do things. I need new leadership who will challenge the status quo and think out of the box.”

My gut reaction to his request was first to cringe at the old box aphorism. Next I asked him my bonus question: How are mistakes and errors handled in your organization? What happened last wek when the client work was found to have errors? As I expected, he told me that his company had a long history of blame and negative repercussions for mistakes. People would rather stay with the tried and true than risk damaging their reputation and further success by going out on a limb with a new idea. I proceeded to tell him not to waste any money or time on coaching and promoting innovation until he changed leadership behaviors towards mistakes.

Here is my personal rant on innovation: everybody has the capacity to be innovative and creative to some degree. Many people have the ability to be highly creative in how they perform their job. It is the organization’s responsibility, specifically the senior leadership’s responsibility to recognize, nurture and grow creative acts. Build it or kill it. The most fatal action a leader can take which will rid his or her organization of new thoughts and ideas is to not tolerate mistakes. You cannot build innovation by constantly hiring people with a track record of innovation. You build an innovate culture by recognizing and rewarding innovative acts, even if they result in failure. Use failure as a means of learning and development, not as a way to blame. If a person fails and does not know how to do the job right, that calls for training. If they fail and know how to correct the system next time, that’s learning. Neither mistake should be punished, the effort at trying something new needs to be rewarded and the learning promoted throughout the organization. In that organizational climate innovation will flourish.