Leadership in Innovation: Thinking Outside the Box

In innovation, as in flight, the key to success is often in the preparation.

Leadership in Innovation: Thinking Outside the Box

Before fast food restaurant Taco Bell rolled out its “Live Mas” campaign, it received quite a bit of marketplace attention for its slogan, “Think Outside the Bun.” Though it was hailed by many as a brilliant spinoff of its traditional box-phrase counterpart, the company dropped it following a difficult financial slump. While the campaign ultimately failed, the message was one that, even today, still sticks with consumers, presumably because most of us strive to think outside the proverbial box—and most of us have trouble doing so. Innovators are no different. So, why is it so hard?

A recent article from the Harvard Business Review dissects several of the leading problems in management—more specifically, why so many employers grapple with the task of forcing employees (hint: forcing employees is probably the first issue) to think for themselves, rather than just follow orders. The article makes the compelling case that systemized organizational processes have backed employees into a corner, causing them to lose much of the personal identity that makes critical thinking possible. As a solution, the author proposes that jobs need to be redesigned in order to give employees ownership over three things: (1) how tasks are performed; (2) their own personal identities; and (3) their time. In the innovation space, the solutions (at least at their most basic level) aren’t much different, and they revolve around dispensing with the notion of a box in the first place. Here are two quick tips that, as innovation leaders, you can start implementing immediately to bolster performance.

Let Go

As HBR points out, the managers who want their employees to be more autonomous are the same managers who insist that employees follow standardized process directions. Doesn’t make sense, right? Rather than focus on the processes (which, by the way, are often flawed in the first place in terms of efficiency), innovation leaders instead need to focus on results—and, yes, these can be, and probably should be, tiered results that are tracked at benchmarked points. Results should thus be framed in terms of what a good product will look like—which also means that innovation leaders need to clearly establish what makes an acceptable go-to-market idea.

Key here is that, as a leader, it’s your responsibility to set your team up for success, but to not dictate how to go about producing that success. Give your innovation team the opportunity to figure it out as they go, and to constantly tinker with whatever processes they do come up with. Chances are, since they’re the ones most involved with the project, they know how best to go about improving not only the product, but also the process itself.

Let Them Be

Themselves, that is. In perhaps the most interesting part of the HBR piece, the author details a research experiment that the publication ran with an outsourcing firm. Like many organizations, this firm made a habit of onboarding new employees in the same way—teaching them about rules, regulations, and the business’ history. HBR tried something different. With a fresh recruiting class, the outsourcing firm was asked to split up new cohorts into two groups—one of which would receive the standard onboarding, and the other of which would be asked to think and write about themselves and how they work best. Following this, they would introduce themselves to the rest of their experimental group—and at the end of the day, each was given a fleece and a badge with his/her name on it in order to bolster this sense of personal identity. After tracking each group for over six months, HBR found that the personal identity group was 20% less likely to quit the firm and also received higher scores on customer service evaluations than the traditional onboarding group.

In innovation, this sense of identity is perhaps even more important. Because ideas often arise from individualized experience—and indeed are typically frustrated by a more collective groupthink—innovation leaders should do everything they can to encourage personal identity, rather than stifle it. On its most primal level, this means encouraging employees to be themselves, but on a more intricate note, it’s really about figuring out ways to foster a workplace that celebrates individuality and constantly reaffirms to employees their value in the company as a whole.

Want to improve your innovation leadership? Curious about how to implement some of these strategies? Send Rob Beachy an email at rbeachy@axiomcom.com.

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