The Power of Paradox in Innovation
Sunday, November 9, 2014 at 8:22PM
Ralph Kerle in HR, IT, Innovation, Innovation, creativity, leadership, management innovation

In the past decade, I have listened to many leaders across all sorts of industries and organisations dialogue about innovation but very rarely have I seen organisations actually embody and live the outcomes of these dialogues.  Facilitated dialogues and workshops with the endorsement and often participation of company leaders invariably leave participants highly enthused. Yet very often after a relative short period of time, organisations absorb this optimism and little changes.

Leaders attest to the many difficulties associated with innovation, not least of which are the political ramifications. Innovation is like a political movement, often polarising entrenched hierarchies, organisational elites and factions. Innovation favours ideators and implementers, those wanting to overthrow the status quo and get on with change, challenging anybody who stands in their way.

How a leader handles this unresolved organisational tension is crucial to the implementation of innovation.

Over the last couple of months I have observed a trend within some larger organisations in which senior leaders are starting to engage internal staff in something more than just dialogue about innovation.  I can’t put my finger on what it is directly but for want of a better description I will call it - innovation action.

Innovation action is beyond mere dialogue and seems to follow a rough pattern.  A new department is formed, often within the HR, People and Learning or the Business Development areas with direct access to the very top of the organisation. Members of this new department come from all sorts of backgrounds – communications, marketing, recruitment, IT, sales, accounting, procurement. Personally they all seem to have common attributes – a passion for creativity, innovation and risk. Regularly the level of those involved is middle management and below; their age often below 40. We are on a mission, charged to innovate and transform this organisation regardless, is their mantra.

Two examples of innovation action I have participated in recently highlight the importance of how different senior leadership styles can either impede or facilitate this new empowered and passionate group of organizational disrupters.

In the first example, innovation responsibility was handed to the human resources department. Much time was spent researching, consulting and drawing up a comprehensive strategic innovation plan including actions, timelines and outcomes. A creative conversation using a World Café process produced a tactical agenda focusing on the HR Department developing innovation capabilities and practices and trialling these practices within their own department before rolling them across the entire organisation. The entire HR Department from HR Director down to Executive Assistant was drafted into a day’s workshop on design thinking and creative problem solving during which they were exposed to various tools and techniques that underline these innovation processes.

The HR leader in this organisation is a rational logical thinker driven by the need for conformity, process and outcome and as a result, is risk adverse. He leads through examination of the minutiae, using the scientific method of asking his team to construct a hypothesis in the first instance in which he can find flaws to explore. As a result of this leadership style, innovation doesn’t operate emergently; rather it has to be constructed first with an articulated vision everyone is asked to work towards fulfilling.

His first action subsequent to the workshop was to appoint somebody as the innovation co-ordinator responsible for  bringing together a team to facilitate further idea sessions – to create new hypotheses that the leader himself could select and nominate as being suitable for innovative action that the new tools and techniques could be tested against.. Three months later, there is no enthusiasm, the staff most likely to commit to innovation action have various and differing views on whether this is the right way to proceed that they are unable to express openly and are disengaged and the leader is frustrated because he has had no feedback from the group.

The problem here is the leader’s view that innovation can be achieved through simple idea generation and refinement rather than a systemic organisational movement involving every aspect of the culture, its people and its operation.

Innovation as a political movement for real transformation under his leadership will only ever be tactical and incremental.  Incremental innovation is not a bad thing of itself. It minimises disruption and ensures the organisation moves forward within its traditional constraints. However it is only half of the political picture. It misses entirely breakthrough thinking - the innovation action element built on imagination and risk, enabling entrepreneurship.

Albert Einstein has been quoted as saying “Logic will take you from A to Z. Imagination will take you everywhere!”

The second case study is a complete contrast in leadership styles and as a result, a contrast in outcomes. Vice President, HR, Training and Development of one of Australia’s largest industry employers wanted an existing 18 month long graduate leadership programme re-designed to reflect the new number one core value of the organisation – to be innovative – with the purpose of making innovation the main business enabler underscored by a long term market driven vision..

A new leadership and innovation programme I designed introduced graduates to the concepts of strategic and tactical innovation using a real world business challenge of raising funds for charity as a way of working with business model innovation and the creative problem solving methodology to devise tactical solutions to implement the new business model.

The initial reaction to the redesigned programme was one of resistance, confusion, deliberate obfuscation from within the HR department as well as the Learning and OD Department. Some departmental managers of these young graduates, already threatened in some instances by the Gen Y attitude of their new charges, initially refused to allow their graduates time to participate properly and complained bitterly to senior leaders.

To complicate matters, the innovation thinking preference on the participants revealed the organisation’s preference for hiring young science graduates who were predominantly developers of ideas rather than ideators and implementers in their own right.

Against this background, the Vice President had a vision for the new programme, was clear about delegating to those she engaged to be creative in design and delivery to fulfil this vision and had empowered the design team to make wide ranging and far reaching decisions about the content in the programme. When internal staff began questioning or could not agree on a way forward, she appeared to intuit this circumstance, would call a meeting and made sure every party or stakeholder involved attended. If one shareholder failed to attend, the meeting was truncated until everyone was available. Everyone was asked their opinion and everyone left the meeting knowing what action was required to proceed whether they agreed with the final decision or not. Her leadership style exemplified and embodied the chief characteristics of a creative leader – enlightenment, empowerment and engagement – the style needed to achieve strategic as opposed to incremental innovation. Importantly this leader demonstrated how to hold competing agendas, to observe the movements in conflict, to empower specialists and thought leaders to get on with the job whilst holding to a fuzzy vision of what might be. In other words she recognized the paradoxical nature of the situation..

The net result over 4 months has been transformative. The organization has seen the emergence of a group of young highly motivated future leaders aligned to the new values of the organisations who have experienced real world entrepreneurial business skills and associated creative problem solving – something they wouldn't get in their day to day tasks for some years. Importantly, they have experienced real world innovation in a social context that allowed them to feel good about themselves and their organization. Like all transformation there are ups and downs. On the down side, there has been a re-structuring of roles within the leadership programme’s auspicing department, the HR Department, promoting employees who have shown they are comfortable with innovation action into more senior roles with those who wanted to retain the status quo side ways moved to more operational and process driven roles.

These two cases studies demonstrate the importance of the role of the creative leader in established organizations. The risk adverse leader will offer incremental innovation – a risky strategy in the current dynamic multi-national global market place because it operates from a position of constraint. The truly creative leader offers the chance of organisational transformation and all its inherent risks and benefits. However, more importantly, a truly creative leader innately knows how to lead from the now in the moment whilst simultaneously holding a longer term, even 25 year, vision.

It is this paradoxical capability, this polarity of now versus a vision that seems to many employers and employees alike, self-contradictory or absurd tha,t in reality, expresses a possible truth that holds the power and is the permanent state of successful leadership and innovation in the 21st Century.

Goethe, the great 18th Century German dramatist best captured this when he wrote  “Thinking is easy, acting is difficult, and to put one's thoughts into action is the most difficult thing in the world.....”

Contact Ralph Kerle to participate in the Power of Paradox in Innovation Senior Leadership Workshop.

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