Innovation has become an overused, hollow buzzword.

(In doing so, it has joined the ranks of terms like “engagement” and “inclusion”).

After all, only leaders of tech start-ups are required to innovate, right?

Quite the opposite.

Martin Reeves, head strategist at BCG’s think tank in New York, offers some startling statistics:

  • The average lifespan of a public company is now just 30 years
  • Employees can expect no more than 15 years of tenure in their current company
  • There’s a 30% chance that your business will fail in five years

Clearly, as a leader, trying to surf trends won’t cut it anymore. As I’ve mentioned in my recent interview with the Huffington Post, you have to genuinely, aggressively, passionately innovate – your strategy, your value proposition, your culture, and your products.

(Especially if you’re NOT leading a tech start-up).

START WITH AN HONEST SELF-EVALUATION

As in, what sort of culture does your leadership inspire? Below are some descriptors to get you thinking:

  • Cautious or inquisitive
  • Serving the C-Suite or serving your customers
  • Reactionary or strategic
  • Competitive or connected

Be honest with yourself.

Because where you are stylistically is likely a direct reflection of your company culture.

Often, our approach to challenges evolves as a means of survival. And once the energy is set in motion, it can be tough to undo. But it can be undone.


EVALUATE YOUR PEOPLE

What kind of work does your team produce – good, or ground-breaking?

If you’re at the good end of the spectrum, you’re not alone. And again, it’s likely a by-product of the classic big business culture in which so many of us function. Where individuals matter more than teams; and where only ideas from senior leadership make the cut.

So, now that you know where you are, where do you want to be?

I suspect that if you really think about it, the roadblocks in your company’s culture have been disturbing you for a while now.


HOW, THEN, TO SHIFT THE PARADIGM?

Author, leadership consultant, and entrepreneur Margaret Heffernan professes that the secret lies in chickens.

In her famous TED talk, she quotes a six-generation productivity study that compares a group of diverse hens to a group of continually hand-picked “super chickens.”

While the diverse group of hens thrived and grew more prolific, the super chickens destroyed each other. Literally.

So, what do these chickens have to do with your team’s ability to innovate?

Let’s break it down:

Super Chickens = High Potential Employees

Diverse Chickens = Blended Team

Could it be that the days of relying on an uber-talented SME or a hand-picked first-string senior exec are gone? Check.

According to Malcolm Gladwell, in his podcast Revisionist History, the phenomenon isn’t just showing up in the corporate world.

He asserts that sports teams and institutes of higher education are also more innovative when driven by a culture of what Gladwell calls “weak-link networks” (think: blended team) versus “strong-link networks” (think: solo superstar).


LET’S TRANSLATE THIS INTO BUSINESS TERMS

A strong-link network can create a start-up. But a weak-link network will keep it viable for the long-term.

But to make the weak-link concept work, Heffernan suggests that—contrary to the competitive-driven culture that dominates most companies—teams really need to know, trust and motivate each other. Which can only happen when they spend focused time together.

Because once people understand and trust each other, they’re comfortable asking the hard questions about the work. And once the hard questions are no longer being suppressed, innovation begins to flourish.

Jean Oelwang, CEO of Virgin Unite, said that honest dialogue is a new power, the new success, the new sexy.

So, what exactly might this look like?

Consider 50+-year-old company, WL Gore. The creators of the material Gore-Tex, and countless other inventions, the culture is known for its focus on innovation. But with a few unique twists.

1. There’s No Set Hierarchy

Gore refers to his company’s structure as a “lattice-work”, one of the original matrixed organizations.

And when team members from different sections of the lattice come together on a project, they make it a point to distinguish between questioning someone’s idea and questioning the person.

By taking the personal element out of it, everyone is free to speak their minds about the work.

2. Many Employees Have Been Around for 20+ Years

And they’re still active in ideation. In fact, the millennials onboard call them the “Wise Ones”.

Whether virtual or in-person, their project teams are multigenerational. Again, everyone has their place. Everyone’s contribution matters.

Which brings me to my last point about WL Gore.

3. They Don’t Call Their Culture “Innovative”

They don’t offer Googly perks like free food and onsite dry cleaning.

HR refers to their culture as “conscious”. Meaning, it empowers the individual to mindfully question and create. And amazingly, leaders and associates (their terms for managers and employees) have joined forces to preserve the culture.

So it hasn’t changed much since the company was founded.

If a 50-year-old company can become a case study in innovation, the door is wide open for you.

Now that you’re armed with a newfound awareness of your style—and the power of blended teams—here’s one last nugget of inspiration.


READY TO LEAD LIKE AN INNOVATOR?

Start with these five actions that Stephen Covey coined the “Innovator’s DNA”…

  • Question: Challenge conventional wisdom at every turn, especially when it’s uncomfortable.
  • Observe: Scrutinise everything about your business as though you’re seeing it for the first time.
  • Network: Seek out people who are utterly different from you (and your team) to spark some constructive conflict.
  • Experiment: Tweak, twist, bend, flex, and move in ways that might seem outlandish to see what results emerge.
  • Connect: Don’t limit your sight to your industry, or your comfort zone. Use your vision to connect the dots on a universal scale.

Wondering if the approach will work? Personally, I love concrete examples—especially those coming from outside the corporate world. So I’ll leave you with one.

In the late 1950s, a breakthrough American TV series called The Twilight Zone tackled taboo topics like aliens and time travel.

The writer and creator, Rod Serling, felt it gave him the perfect forum to question the country’s political status quo.

“I found that it was all right to have Martians saying things Democrats and Republicans could never say.”

How will you rethink your world?

Written By
Irene is an executive personal branding strategist who runs the global consultancy Arielle.

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