How should leaders enshrine innovation at the heart of their firms?

UK employees are disheartened that their thirst for innovation isn’t reflected among leadership figures. How can both sides work to resolve this?

It turns out that RADA – the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts – makes as much impact with its views on leadership as its finest alumni make on stage and screen. Part of the famed performance school is devoted specially to the business world, mainly to coach leaders on their body language and public speaking skills. But it also studies a whole series of business trends, and earlier this month it proved that a hotbed of creativity that people don’t usually associate with the cut and thrust of office life can bring some useful insights to the table on where companies may be falling short. Particularly when it comes to something that artists are routinely required to produce: innovation.

In a piercing study of 1,000 UK workplaces, RADA found that 81% of those organisations don’t currently support a culture of experimentation: the essential kindling for innovative behaviour. Indeed, just over one in five employees (21%) in those workplaces said that they didn’t believe senior figures were interested in hearing their ideas. A comparable number (18%) said that even when they did put their ideas forward, those brainwaves were rarely implemented. In the two most painful findings, as many as 16% of staffers said that their senior management teams actively treat new ideas with suspicion and criticism, while 15% believe that their leaders purposely discourage innovation.

Workplaces in the bureaucratic worlds of national and local government are where staffers find it hardest to think creatively (21%). Meanwhile, the employees who find it toughest to make their innovative voices heard can be found in the technical environments of IT (29%) and financial services (26%). According to the study, creative discussions in firms of those types are typically swamped by a few ‘loud voices’.

On the other end of the scale, the workers who feel that they have the greatest imaginative latitude for creative and innovative thinking happen to be in either teaching (surely a reassuring sign) or professional trades such as building and plumbing. In fact, staffers in those lines of work are four times less likely to struggle with innovation than their beleaguered counterparts behind government desks.

Space to play

RADA in Business director Kevin Chapman says: “It’s concerning to see how many people feel that creativity and innovation aren’t encouraged in their role … In the same way that a theatre director works with their cast of actors to experiment with different ways to tell a story, business leaders can benefit from improvising with their teams, which is a key element to unlocking greater creativity.” He adds: “We encourage businesses to provide space to play with new ideas without being overly critical … an attitude of enthusiastic curiosity towards every idea that you come up with defies your critical voice and may lead the way to new innovations.”

Amid an era of dynamic changes and fast-paced challenges (and you only have to look at our recent Brexit blog to get a sense of how daunting they are), the apparently widespread stagnancy and reluctance among businesses when it comes to innovation are clearly untenable. So, what to do? Well, much as I applaud RADA for shining a light on the problem with such a detailed – and dramatic – flourish, I must say that its study puts a little too much of the onus on employers, when employees also have a part to play. Cracking this problem is a two-way street – and it will require a more structured and strategic response than the improvisation Chapman recommends (although that will inevitably be a component).

Looking at the first lane of that two-way street, leaders should create special frameworks for channelling innovation – and by that, I don’t mean something as passive and simple as a ‘suggestion box’. Such frameworks must cut right to the heart of how leaders allocate their most precious resource: time. If the time that leaders purposely provide to this task spurs the development of relevant and useful innovations, it will encourage them to see the benefits of the innovation cycle. With that in mind, they may consider setting up a dedicated, monthly ‘think tank’ where groups of employees from various parts of the business club together to crunch strategic problems (strategy must always be the anchor).

That will enable leaders to get ahead of the curve on problems, rather than spend their time embroiled in firefighting exercises. The trouble with leaders and time is that, far too often, managers are hauled into meetings about problems that they’re asked to solve while still keeping on top of day-to-day activities. While many of those problems may be relatively simple, they’re not the ones that are going to help companies get from where they are to where they need to be, if they’re to thrive and survive. Time and time again, leaders get stuck in a rut whereby they’re continually experiencing the present – which means that it’s too late to do anything about ‘what is’. But what they really need to do is create the future.

Magnetic North

Creating the future requires leaders to make space for innovation in the present. What are your customers going to require of you now, and then in the months and years ahead? Fix that as the ‘magnetic North’ of your organisation’s compass. Demand is the mother of invention. Amazon and AirBnB have both harnessed innovative thinking to secure their futures – creating demand for services that consumers could theoretically live without: bricks-and-mortar retailers still exist, as do traditional accommodation outlets. However, they rethought service models from the perspective of what consumers would find most convenient, and that was their magnetic North. Now, those brands have made themselves well and truly indispensable.

Turning to the second lane of the two-way street, then, there are plenty of ways in which employees could enhance their chosen methods of bringing ideas to the attention of senior management. Above all, it would be helpful for employees to realise that their leaders are often time-poor.

Yes, it’s an understandable source of frustration for employees if they hastily mutter an idea to a leader while passing by in a corridor, or as an aside after a meeting on a completely different matter, only for that thought to gain no traction in the leader’s mind and fade away without a follow-up. However, leaders often view their office rounds through a gauze of multiple different commitments – so making yourself noticed amid the sheer haze of priorities that leaders are visualising takes no small degree of skill. Remember: you must not merely introduce or mention your idea… you must actually come up with an eye-catching way of selling it in, so that it takes root in your leader’s imagination. This will require an original approach, and a lot of persistence.

Employees must also ensure that their ideas really hit the magnetic north of the type of innovations that would benefit their firms’ strategies. With a wealth of information literally at their fingertips, employees can sometimes believe that they know best – and may not always take time to research the market that their ideas must plug into. So, gather evidence to support your idea’s viability. And don’t underestimate the importance of articulating those ideas eloquently and efficiently. Dumping a 100-page PDF into a senior manager’s inbox is very likely a waste of everyone’s time. But outlining the essentials of your thoughts in a PowerPoint slideshow – or a series of posts on a team-messaging platform, such as Slack – could give your innovation an instant foothold.

A note on key qualities

When I think about the leadership attributes that are necessary for innovation, I turn to the Lumina Leader training tool that we use at Inemmo to help our clients. The primary qualities required are ‘Leading with vision’ and ‘Leading with drive’, on the right-hand side of Lumina Leader’s persona chart. Take a look at the sub-categories dotted around them and ask whether they apply to you – or are urging you to move closer to them…

Lumina Leader

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