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Friday, February 27, 2009

Innovation in business today Part III

By Dr. Earl R. Smith II

In the prior articles in this series, I focused on the general problems and some of the specific issues which come to fore when a company sets about to develop a culture which supports and encourages innovation. In this article, I would like to focus on some of the characteristics of leadership that best support such an effort.

In the first two installments, I made it clear that a close partnership between the CEO and the Chairman of the Board is one of the best ways to develop a corporate culture that stimulates innovation. A careful mixing of the CEO’s essentially tactical focus with the Chairman’s strategic view can be the first and most important step in developing such a culture. While there are characteristics that these leaders may not share, many of the components of their leadership style are the same. I will address these differences in a subsequent article. However, for now, I would like to focus on the common leadership characteristics that I have found important.

Vision Beyond Self: There are lots of ways to describe this leadership characteristic - ‘seeing it from the other’s perspective’ - ‘walking a mile in their shoes’ - but it comes down to being able to understand, appreciate and honor where the person on the other side of the table is coming from. Good leaders have the ability to appreciate empathetically the position and condition of their subordinates. This is true whether the perspective of the leader is tactical (CEO) or strategic (Chairman).

Providing the Visions: One of the most common mistakes that leaders make is to assume that vision relates to strategic perspectives and not tactical ones. Nothing could be further from the truth. The combination of the two perspectives begins with the promulgation of clear and inspiring visions from both. One of the most common imbalances that I encounter in my work with companies trying to develop a culture of innovation is that imbalance between these visions. Most often, the strategic vision is well defined - or at least as well defined as it might be without the discipline imposed by a well-formulated tactical vision. The CEO and Chairman must both develop visions from their own perspectives and then blend them effectively.

Communicating the Visions: Innovation works - and by that I mean the process which begins with an innovative insight and progresses efficiently to the point that it is translated into revenue - when the two visions are deployed and blended appropriately within that process. At the beginning, the mix will be more towards the strategic vision. However, it is important the tactical discipline make itself felt even at the earliest stages. As the process proceeds, the balance needs to shift gradually towards the tactical. This means that the communication of the visions needs to be re-aligned as the process moves from the idea to realization. This evolution of vision-mix is one of the most difficult and subtle challenges that the CEO and Chairman face.

Facilitation Not Forcing: Vision is not innovation. The CEO and Chairman are not going to be doing the work of innovation - they are going to be facilitating it. In my experience, CEOs and Chairmen who insist on taking the lead in the process of innovation - rather than facilitating it - are either misaligned or do not understand the process. Good facilitators are seldom great innovators. People who make the mistake of assuming they are identical become intrusive and disruptive. Sustainable innovation requires effective facilitators. Innovation occurs because facilitators fill the appropriate role.

Seeing, Hearing and Sensing: The CEO and Chairman are partners in the effort to stimulate innovation and to establish a culture that supports and sustains it. Both will bring skills and sensitivities to that process. Together they must see, hear and sense the needs of the process as it evolves and work together to provide for those needs. The must be attuned to what is going on within the organization. They must also work together to sense how the organization and people working within it are responding to the efforts to stimulate innovation. Finally, they must listen to both the organization and their people. What important is the balance. If the CEO hears only what his tactical perspective leads him to hear while the Chairman does the same - hearing the strategic - then the tendency will be for the two camps to divide. If that happens effective innovation will likely not occur.

Developing the People that Make the Culture a Reality: In the beginning, the vision of a culture may be shared by only two people - the CEO and Chairman. If a sustainable culture is going to be built, the understanding of how the tactical and strategic visions combine to produce effective innovation needs to grow and be shared by large parts of the organization. The subtle part of this challenge is that the understanding is not constant throughout the organization but is a varying blend of the two components depending where in the organization a particular individual is. The CEO and Chairman must work together to influence the thinking of key players. They must actively mentor individuals so that they will understand better the overall vision of the culture and their appropriate role in it.

The Seamless Whole and the Sum of its Parts: A culture of innovation requires that the whole be greater than the sum of its parts. Supporting teamwork among people with significantly different skill-sets and visions provides a unique set of challenges. More on that in Part 4.

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