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Leadership and Innovation: Bridging the Gap

Jim Taggart

The word ‘leadership’ is used so loosely in everyday speech that it is in danger of becoming a superfluous term.

Within organizations – public and private – not only is it used to excess, but this trend is undermining what leadership is intended to accomplish. This is most unfortunate because the organizational turbulence we are witnessing as a result of gyrations in financial markets, the recession, technological advancement, geo-politics, and global competition is calling for enhanced leadership. But implicit in this calling is an urgent need for much greater clarity on what our collective expectations are regarding leadership and how it should be practiced in organizations.

(Note, that in this article that I am not delving into the leadership – management debate; that’s reserved for another posting).

Position Signals

In her book The Female Advantage (inspired by the early work of McGill University management guru Henry Mintzberg), Sally Helgesen succinctly sums up the issue: “…our continued habit of linking leadership with position signals, our inability to grasp how organizations are changing….in the future, our ideas about the nature of leadership will undergo a radical transformation.”

What this new leadership will look like and what qualities it will embody are important issues. She also emphasizes that organizations that address how power is distributed will have moved forward in creating leadership at all levels.

Solving Problems With the Same Thinking

The nub of the issue is how leadership is distributed within organizations.

The paradigm shift they face is transcending how they have operated in the past - whether producing goods or services - and how they will adapt to the new competitive world. It was Albert Einstein who once said, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.”

Confederation bridge-288x161A second word that is used ad nauseam is innovation.

Definitions abound in the literature, and I won’t attempt to introduce one here. It is fairly intuitive that if companies wish to succeed in a competitive world - and if they wish to be around for the long term - that they must strive continuously to improve their products or services; eliminate those that no longer serve a purpose; adjust their internal processes; invest in new technologies; and develop their employees – what economists call human capital stock.

How They Do What They Do

The practice of leadership within organizations and the linkage to innovation has probably never been as critical as it is now. As mentioned above, the gyrations being felt are exerting increased pressure on those in the top leadership positions of companies.

Gary Hamel is quite helpful here. In his book The Future of Management he speaks to an agenda for management innovation, noting that three major challenges confront firms in the global competitive environment:

  1. creating a faster pace of renewal,
  2. embedding innovation throughout the company,
  3. fostering a participative work setting to bring out the best in employees.

This calls into play leadership. One aspect is that managers need to learn how to function as innovators - not just their staff.

Management innovation, therefore, is about changing how managers “…do what they do.” It is a “…marked departure from traditional management principles, processes, and practices, or from customary organizational forms that significantly alters the way the work of management is performed.”

To ensure that a management innovation has a lasting effect, Hamel specifies three necessary conditions:

  1. The innovation is founded upon a new principle that challenges the status quo; the more unconventional the principle, the longer it will take competitors to adjust,
  2. It comprises a range of processes and techniques,
  3. It is part of a continuous process of innovation and improvement.

Closing the Gap

Recognizing that innovation occurs throughout organizations, but that one of senior leadership’s strategic roles is to create the environment for this to happen, requires that leadership also needs to be distributed at all levels.

When people see that the right conditions are being created to encourage innovation, they will move forward by empowering themselves to makes things happen.

The gap between leadership and innovation will then start to close.

note: This post is revised from Jim’s previous writing in his blog, Changing Winds, and appears here with his permission.

Comments

Jim,

I agree with you completely that the word “Leadership” has lost its meaning, also “innovation” and though I am a great admirer of the work of Gary Hamel also “embedded” (Embedding innovation?).

Unfortunately there are many, many words that have lost their original meaning, or to put it another way, they do not create the picture in the mind of the listener that was originally intended, such as “empowerment”, “process” or “quality”.

I find it most useful to assume that no-one creates the same picture from the same words, and to work from there.  So there is a dilemma, do we create our own “buzzwords”, our flavour of the month in order to get across what we mean?  It’s tempting…

Back to “innovation”.  There is no direct action associated with “to innovate.” We can only take actions that, when looked back upon, will be said to be innovative.  It is more important, I think to focus on clear goals, quality, production, cost reduction etc. - and to meet them somehow, rather than to wonder if one is being “innovative”, or to be concerned that one must be innovative.

By Phil Hawins on 2011/05/24

Thanks for adding your perspectives, Phil. I suppose beauty is in the eye of the beholder, that through our individual mental models we tailor, temper or even manipulate certain words or catch-phrases to suit our own needs. One word that sets me off is empowerment, which is intertwined with leadership. I happen to be a proponent of Harrison Owen, who stated many years ago: “If I empower you, to some extent you are still within my power.” My view is that people empower themselves. The role of leadership is to create the necessary conditions for people to do so.

By Jim Taggart on 2011/05/24

Phil, I agree absolutely…that the interpretations that I make are my own and while they may not necessarily be correct, they may make perfect sense to me.  Being aware that my conclusions may not be valid, I often seek to clarify details—I have found I can create fantastical assumptions from incomplete facts!  Jim, you also have a great point about creating the conditions for people to empower themselves.  I always advocate creating the “right” conditions, but what if those conditions appear to “set the stage” for a certain outcome, perhaps one that I prefer. In order to empower others, they need to be consulted about what the right conditions are for them, which can be quite different from person to person.

By Diane Thompson on 2011/06/01

I recall, Diane, when I was a new manager in my early thirties, before I got into leadership theory and such. After falling on my face for a while, but learning at the same time, I learned to let go. It was amazing to watch my team flourish. However, in regard to your point about conditions, it’s very true about consulting people, but more important is gaining a good understanding on how each one wishes to be lead. Some people work extremely well with minimal supervision and checking in. Others want to be able to check in more often, or to have regular feedback, reinforcement, etc. Following my newbie manager experience, I found similar situations over the next 20 years, whether with intact teams or project teams.

Hershey’s and Blanchard’s Situational Leadership model is a good framework on which to examine the issue of empowerment.

By Jim Taggart on 2011/06/01

I think why the word ‘empowerment’ drives us crazy is because we use it in (at least) two different ways.  I once spoke to a corporate executive who had a fit when I mentioned empowerment.  He said he didn’t want any of that because it meant that people do whatever they want and you end up with chaos(!)

To quote the dictionary:
Empower: To give power  or authority to; authorize, especially by legal or official means: I empowered my agent to make the deal for me.

Harrison Owen: “If I empower you, to some extent you are still within my power.”  This is true, but it is not a bad thing!  In a large organization, somebody has to be in charge.

Lets say a manager gives his/her people the power to make decisions themselves whenever they are stopped, when they cannot continue their work.  How does he or she prevent the advertised chaos?  The empowerment is given with boundaries, or qualifications – so long as the solution fits the corporate strategic intent, so long as the annual budget is not affected etc. etc. If this is the case then it must be referred to the manager – otherwise, go ahead.

Sometimes this empowerment is given by the size of the project.  Less than a certain amount – go for it.  Above a certain amount, better have Quality Assurance (QA) look at it before you go ahead.  A large project that can affect the profitability and reputation of the company – better get QA and upper management sign off before committing.

A simple definition, or criterion for this kind of empowerment is that people are in action.  If they are stopped, waiting for management approval, reviews, can’t get what they need etc. then they are not empowered sufficiently.  Time to remove management bottlenecks, the people doing the work are, after all, the experts.

The second meaning used for ‘empowerment’ is akin to Dr. Deming’s point number 8 “Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company.”  This version of empowerment can be seen.  It can be seen, for example, in the employees’ eyes, in their body language, in their tone of voice, in what they choose to talk about, their enthusiasm.  This could be called the “culture”, or as Greg Tricklebank further defines it, the “climate” of the organization.

This cannot be done directly, one can take actions that one believes will yield this result, but the test is to observe, to see if these actions did produce the desired response.  As Diane points out, each person is different and often needs to be addressed as such.

This is where I feel that the notion that people ‘empower themselves’ is misleading, though it may, strictly speaking, be accurate.  It involves a lot of shrewd management in the achievement of it.

I know these two version overlap somewhat.  I know the first version can lead to the second version, but it need not, it is usually not enough.  Like driving out fear, version two is broader in scope and depends on many other factors.

By Philip Hawkins on 2011/06/06

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About this Article

Posted by Jim Taggart
Posted on May 13, 2011
5 Comments

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Categories: change management, innovation, leadership, management, organizational development