An Innovation Mindset
Innovation cannot be created or sustained if the organization’s culture isn’t open and ready to receive it. You must have an innovation mindset before you try to stand up an innovation process or practice. An innovation culture is created from three traditional leadership principles that are redefined in the context of an innovation mindset – trust, confident humility and devotion.
As we take the ground of innovation, be strong and courageous!
These are three leadership principles with which we are familiar, but their traditional meanings aren’t enough to create and sustain a culture of innovation. Courage is needed to be successful! As the Lord commanded and encouraged Joshua three times in Joshua 1, he says to us today, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9). As we take the ground of innovation, be strong and courageous!
It begins with trust! Why is trust so important to innovation? It fuels bold creative problem solving and ignites the entrepreneurial spirit. Entrepreneurs are innovators. Trust propels entrepreneurs to think big, to investigate the unknown and take new ground. However, there’s been a disturbing trend towards an increasing general lack of trust in people. The less trust there is the less likely people will feel the freedom and safety to think radically inventive thoughts that lead to new and better outcomes.
Nothing can strangle innovation like distrust.
Trust takes courage! Nothing can strangle innovation like distrust. But within an organization led by a leader who has the courage to lead with an innovation mindset, fresh new ideas flourish, grow wild and spread into beautiful creations and solutions never before imagined.
Traditionally, trust means “a firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something” (Merriam-Webster). In the context of an innovation mindset however, particularly when it comes to your leadership, trust means more.
Two trust actions your team should see you model:
1. “I will ask questions about ideas instead of making statements about ideas.” Your team needs to believe they can share a wild idea without judgment, and that you will treat their ideas, no matter how much you disagree or care for the ideas, with honor, dignity and respect.
2. “I will treat any problem or opportunity as if it were our only problem or opportunity.” The team needs to believe they can bring up a need to be met, a problem to be solved or an opportunity to be seized, even if it goes against the direction you’ve established for your team. You have blind spots. This action allows your team to fill in the blind spots for you. They need to feel safe enough to make up the difference between how you see the world and how the world really is.
Don’t leave the best breakthrough ideas undiscovered because of distrust!
The most effective leaders lead in the tension of confident humility! All leaders feel the need for confidence and we’ve all heard we need to lead with humility, but within in the context of an innovation mindset, these take on a different meaning.
Three confident humility behaviors that take courage:
1. Your team should believe by your demonstrated behaviors over time that you allow your thinking to be shaped by others. That’s not easy! Most leaders are where they are because they have had the right answers, but that’s traditional thinking. An innovation mindset places you in the position of goal setter with decision-making authority, not problem finder and solution creator. The ideas generated from your team will be better than the ones generated by you alone. It’s not having the right answer, it’s asking the right questions; questions that stimulate the creative problem-solving abilities of your team. Answers aren’t stimulating. Questions are stimulating. Use this behavior to become the best learner and leader you can be.
2. Your team needs to believe that you proactively seek wise counsel. This behavior supports confident humility and your devotion to the innovation mindset, especially when your team members are high on the list of wise counselors you seek. Traditional thinking points us to older, more mature and experienced thinking partners only to speak into challenges and problems to solve and the quality of the ideas that might solve them. But the innovation mindset steers us to a more diverse group of people for wise counsel. In an innovation culture and mindset the playing field is leveled where everyone is a learner and everyone is a teacher regardless of generation, gender, ethnicity, level of experience, etc. In this environment we never know where the best breakthrough ideas and solutions may come from. If we ask and listen to more than our traditional “go to people” we will be amazed by the significant contributions of others, perhaps most surprisingly from our younger less experienced team members.
3. Your team needs to believe that you accept your weaknesses. If you are the leader, you’re the expert. That puts you at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to creating breakthrough ideas. Studies have shown the more expertise we have in a subject area, the more rigid our knowledge networks are and the less likely we will be to break out of the context of what we know, to have the courage to fully explore all the possibilities of what could be. The more our expertise tells us what the right answer is, the less curious we are about possible alternatives. Most leaders find it extremely difficult to flush their minds of their contextual expertise.
Take courage to say, “I know, that what we know, is more than what I know!”
Commitment is being dedicated to a cause or task. Devotion, however, defines the quality of the commitment. In the context of the innovation mindset it takes more than commitment, it takes devotion. This takes courage!
Two devotion qualities of the innovation mindset:
1. Your team needs to believe that you are fully devoted to the innovation process, that you will not circumvent steps in the name of speed or risk or reputation. The process works and your team knows it. Deep down you must also know it works! But it requires devotion of the highest quality to stay the course. Beware, there are opportunities to backslide away from the innovation mindset and back into traditional thinking with each step of the innovation process.
We see devotion being tested first when the work within the discovery phase feels like it’s taking too long or we think we know it all, so we jump right to ideas without fully understanding the problem we’re trying to solve or the root cause behind it. The design phase can also lure the cowardly uncommitted innovation leader away from fully evaluating the idea through the lenses of the fully developed problem statement, feasibility or risk, and too quickly moving to implementation.
We also notice devotion being compromised in the prototype phase. If the first prototype yields unexpected, even embarrassing results, some leaders will kill the idea to save face. No courage! But with an innovation mindset and devotion to the process the idea would be refined again and again until it is fully formed, not killed after the first pass for underlying personal reasons. Courage!
Be devoted to celebration. Recognition is fuel that drives the quality of future engagement. Be intentionally inclusive!
2. Involve your team in assessing how consistently and often your devotion to the innovation process shows up. At what stages of the innovation process do they see you starting to lose courage and being tempted to break away from it? To what degree do they feel devoted to the innovation process and how are their responses influenced by your behaviors? How approachable would they say you are when they feel the urge to bring your devotion to the innovation process to your attention?
Take courage! With an innovation mindset you can create an innovation culture to achieve new and greater results by redefining and living out trust, confident humility and devotion!
Michael McCathren is Senior Principal over Enterprise Innovation at Chick-fil-A, Inc. Michael and his team provide internal consulting, facilitation and education services, manage Chick-fil-A’s innovation center and conduct strategic planning for future disruptions. Michael is an Adjunct Lecturer at the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business MBA Program. He blogs at www.growth-minded.com
Bill Frisby is CEO of Strengthening Leaders, L3C. Bill partners with top-level ministry leaders to build healthy, high-performing executive teams and first-rate organizations and boards through executive coaching, organizational consulting and training. He draws from 40 years of international nonprofit and corporate leadership experience. He also facilitates Alliance Leader2Leader peer advisory groups in Atlanta and Dallas.