Many organizations have some sort of defined innovation processes. They each use their own language and bucket the steps a little differently, but the main concepts and the flow are often quite similar. Leading by DESIGN’s steps, for example, look like this:

  1. Identify the opportunity
  2. Discover as much information as possible about the opportunity
  3. Incubate
  4. Generate many ideas
  5. Narrow, choose, tweak, and launch.

What can be disappointing is that even with a defined innovation process, some of the biggest game-changing ideas never surface. This is where we see the leadership topics of culture and innovation intersect. A culture that does not welcome a degree of uncertainty, early-stage failure, or diversity of thought will struggle to get the most out of their innovation process—and their people.

Leaders shape that culture. Even when leaders tout innovation as a core value, they can stifle it through the behaviors they model, celebrate, or tolerate.

I have witnessed a leader verbally squash an out-of-the box idea in a way that left the idea-generator feeling shamed in front of his peers. I have seen one employee shut down another employee’s idea, while the leader stood by and tolerated this. I have observed those with fresh perspectives begin to shut down over time. I have even heard leaders say, “whoever came up with that should be fired!” Those leaders left us all a bit guarded, to say the least.

On the flip side, I have experienced leaders who successfully cultivated an innovative culture. I’ve seen leaders celebrate both the failures and the wins that emerged from innovation processes. These leaders intentionally viewed failure as an opportunity to learn, making it a valuable part of process. What emerged was a safe space to innovate. Ideas flowed, and were then vetted through the process as intended.

This is so critical. Some of the world’s greatest advancements stemmed from what seemed like a crazy idea at the time. Some of the greatest innovations evolved from the lessons learned of earlier failures.

One good thing that may have emerged out of this otherwise dark pandemic is a trend toward fast-paced innovation. Innovative ideas of all types spurred out of necessity: new remote work and remote learning structures, new office layout concepts, air purification technologies, manufacturing plants reconfigured to produce face-masks, igloo dining, and more. We saw leaders willing and wanting to think differently, and welcoming the same from their teams. Leaders responded in such a big way that it likely began to reshape the culture of their organizations. For many teams, the new normal will include a safe space to innovate.

What this all means is that we can expect the fast-paced innovation to continue long after the pandemic is over. It will be fun to see what unfolds.

Lead on,

Image by Dean Hochman. Used under CC by 2.0 license.