Many of the organisations that I work with claim to share a common dilemma – how to manage the paradox between leadership and innovation within their respective organisations. In my experience these organisations also have something else in common being a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of both leadership and innovation in this context.
Whilst this scenario may be understandable given the relative size of many of these organisations; what is less so is where this dilemma exists within larger organisations whose future is highly dependent on their ability to manage innovation – a situation I witnessed first-hand during a conference visit last year.
During the last five years I have been fortunate to develop a working relationship with Frank Hull of the Strategy Research Group, a US based consulting group that specialises in the effective deployment of the innovation process. Frank and his team have spent the best part of the last twenty years studying the factors that differentiate those organisations for which effective innovation is so deeply embedded within the organisation psyche that it is truly second nature. (See www.srgtime.com for further information).
In essence Frank and his team share with us is that innovation can only truly be effective within an organisation by the total organisation coming together and working as one – its strategy, processes, organisation and tools need to be completely aligned. Innovation is the product of incremental development throughout the organisation, often occurring over substantial time periods, with breakthrough development often being characterised as occurring within the white space between organisational disciplines. It is this organisation wide perspective of innovation that is generally not well understood by the leadership of the organisations that I work with.
The leadership imperative within this paradigm is that of creating an environment where diversity is rigorously encouraged and organisational potential is fully exploited. Leadership by default, therefore, must be from behind – I am reminded of the quote of Nelson Mandela who described a leader as being “…like a shepherd. He stays behind his flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realising that all along they are being directed from behind” (1)
(1) – Long Walk To Freedom – Nelson Mandela (1995)