Leadership: Listen Up Leaders: Get Out of the Way!

The next Big Idea will probably come from your people. Does your company have the engine to harvest it?
Apr 01, 2005

Sander A. Flaum
In our intensely competitive global economy, be it pharmaceuticals, electronics, software, or OTC products, the name of the game is innovation. Getting to the next Big Idea, turning it into a marketable product or service, and doing it faster than the competition or the private label distributors is the key to staying on top. How can we lead with innovation as our goal?

Everybody knows that the best ideas rarely come from the top. We also know that people usually do not produce innovations while at their computer checking e-mails, listening to voicemails, or sitting in on production forecast meetings. Rather, the creativity that spawns innovation transcends the daily grind of the workplace and often shows up in unexpected areas. Great ideas come in dreams, from reading magazines, seeing a movie, meeting new people, eating at a new restaurant, traveling to a foreign land, and scores of other daily human activities that are unattached to the structural demands of traditional office life in corporate America.

The question I put to leaders is: How can we reengineer office life to serve innovation? For many years, office life functioned to serve production. Production is orderly, has concrete goals, benchmarks to meet, quotas to produce, etcetera. But as fast as markets move and shift, building an office environment only around production is not savvy anymore.

Innovations come about when a direct goal is not in mind. Innovations are beyond goals; they hurdle over goals altogether and achieve something that cannot be imagined in relation to the conventional business strategy. A powerful innovation leaps over a staid strategy and becomes the new and bold strategy. Today, more than ever, we need creative offices where innovation is encouraged—not orderly offices where status quo thought and performance is repeated day after day.

Leaders are charged with making this happen. Leaders must find a way to tap into their people's imaginations and set them free to roam in uncharted territory. Leaders need to be prepared to put a process in motion and then get out of the way to let the boundless creativity of their people take over. Much different than an old-time autocrat, today's leader must be a creative facilitator—someone who understands how to provide people with an environment that allows playful experimentation that leads to innovation.

I suggest that our clients bring together a diverse group of people and meet off-site on the first Monday of every month, from 8 to 11 am, with a different creative facilitator every time (not the boss!). No phones, no computers, and no interruptions. A well-facilitated three hours is all the group needs to go off and dream about the Big Idea.

This creative "think" time is when the group can focus its full attention on what's out there. Employees can get clarity on what they've been thinking about for the last month, what they've been reading, seeing, experiencing and hearing about from customers, the sales people, the media, other cultures, popular culture, compatible or incompatible industries, etcetera. The group then needs to consider the ideas they believe they can all get behind to meet and/or exceed the challenges at hand.

The group then drills down to the four to five concepts that fit the company culture and have the substance to promote what Andy Grove calls a "10x change." When the group thinks one particular idea makes sense and is executable, it is charged with making it happen. Members then present it to the powers that be, or to whomever they report. The key for the leader here is to get out of the way of the Big Idea and let it find its footing in the real world.

These groups—when appropriately encouraged and prepared by the company's leadership to go into these sessions with the feeling that they are not just some nice activities, but actually at the heart of a new business model based on innovation—can make remarkable things happen. People really do their homework and get fired up about the monthly meetings because they know they can come out with a Big Idea to take ownership of and execute in the real world of their business. And in today's knowledge-based creative economy, where workers are after the next big intellectual challenge, such a leadership practice can bolster employee retention as well as innovation.

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