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3 common mistakes leaders make, that can shut down innovation

Updated: Jun 29, 2021

A few years ago I was asked to work with an organisation. They wanted to improve their performance, and they felt the best way to do that was to innovate and offer a better service to their clients. They expressed that they had been on this journey for some time and they had tried almost everything, but they still weren’t seeing the results that they needed. They asked me for my opinion on what might be getting in the way.

I spent time in the organisation, talking to people, attending their meetings etc, and my first impressions were that they were doing so many things right. Their leadership team said all the right things, they spoke about how they had created an agile environment with a flat structure, how they used human-centered design to solve problems and that the client was at the heart of everything they did. There were bright glossy coloured posters all over the walls that spoke about how important innovation was and that they embodied a ‘test and learn’ mindset. They strived to have an amazing culture and had also jumped on all of the 'start-up trends', with an office fit-out that looked like I was touring Google in Silicon Valley. Staff were working in bean bags, they’d provided free snacks for everyone and there were table tennis tables for people to play on. They’d even painted the walls with whiteboard paint, so the staff could share their ideas on them and collaborate, it was so cool.

The more time I spent, I began to realise the real issues were in the culture the leaders had created. It wasn’t that the other activities weren’t helpful, but there were unconscious leadership messages that contradicted what they were trying to achieve. And what a lot of it actually came down to wasn’t what the leadership SAID they wanted, but how they BEHAVED, and at the end of the day, that is what builds a culture. Over the years I’ve realised these challenges are actually pretty common mistakes leaders make, so I thought I’d share my list of the top 3 that have the most significant impact. Here we go...

  1. Their strategy lacked a clear mission and ambitious goals. Whilst at face value a lot of the innovation buzzwords were being thrown around the office, the mission of the organisation had been lost amongst the staff. It felt like the goal was to do better, but WHY do better? What were we trying to make better and why was that important? What was the catalyst for change? The organisation's purpose was one that is critical for our society, but it wasn’t being linked to their need to change and do better for their clients. The senior leaders had set some ambitious goals they wanted to achieve and these were communicated regularly, but really no one was accountable for them. They were only aspirations. All staff, from the senior leadership team to the frontline were measured on a combination of operational metrics that were essentially similar to what they had achieved the year before. Staff realised that these goals could be met by managing the status quo, so there was no need to do anything different. Innovation often comes out of necessity, and most of us humans avoid taking risks unless there is a need to do something different. It starts with a strategy that tells a compelling story why we need to change and then highlights the problems we need solutions for, plus the direction we are heading in to solve them. There needs to be a clear reason for change and it's the role of us as leaders to give staff some specific direction around what we want changed and how we want to get there. Whilst we also advocate a ‘mission first approach’, you also need to ensure that these goals are aligned to the goals of the staff, so that all of your people strive to achieve them.

  2. There was zero tolerance for risk. Failing = bad. If you listened to the messages from the leaders, on the surface they were saying “innovate, innovate, innovate.” But if you experienced the culture yourself first hand, you quickly realised their actions were saying “manage the status quo”. In the meetings I attended, most of the senior leaders behaved in a way that was often risk-averse. They said they wanted to be innovative, but even when presented with evidence that a new idea would be popular with their clients, they defaulted to doing things the way they had always been done in the past and avoided taking risks. No matter how small the risk or how large the potential payout. I also witnessed staff being ‘told off’ for taking risks, or for ‘stepping out of line’. Or team members from one team being unable to take client feedback from the staff that work with clients on the frontline, shooting down their feedback or ideas as not valid because they and the clients “didn't understand how things worked.” We need to reward innovation and not punish failing. An innovative organisation looks at failing as a lesson learnt, rather than a final and negative outcome. A quick way to check in here is to listen to the stories being told around your organisation. Do you only celebrate your wins, or do you also share the lessons learned? To create a culture that nurtures innovative ideas, we need to create a safe environment for new and even controversial ideas to be heard. They don’t all need to be implemented, but a culture where people can give things a go and know you have their back if it doesn’t achieve its intended result is what we are aiming for here.

  3. People felt they couldn’t REALLY change anything anyway. Whilst everyone had been trained in Human-Centred Design (which is great btw) and were encouraged to run projects. When I spoke to the staff, they knew that the way their product and systems were set up, things couldn’t be changed, even if they had a good idea. There were rumors that it cost millions of dollars to make the slightest change in their systems. After a bit of digging around it was found that this wasn’t true, but there was no consistent process or available budget to make any changes anyway. Staff were often told by the leaders ”We can’t change that unfortunately, it's just the way it is”. So even though they had the skills to innovate and a mandate to do so, staff didn’t bother because they thought that if they did uncover a new idea, it wouldn’t be changed anyway. Does your organisation have a clear process for your people to raise new ideas and if successful, access funding so they can implement them? As leaders, to change a culture, we need to demonstrate that we are congruent in what we are saying we will do and what we actually do. In our line of work, we usually find organisations that are trying to be more innovative, take a little time to get everyone on board. But what does make a big difference is when the staff start to hear of changes that have been made, changes that started by someone like them that has fixed a problem and created better outcomes for their clients. We need to communicate these innovations and share the stories around the organisation, so that everyone knows that good ideas are implemented.

After we discussed the findings of the work, the majority of these changes were implemented and the organisation eventually began to see innovative projects get off the ground. Some of these projects improved the outcomes for their clients, delivered on the organisation’s mission, and in turn, improved their overall results. The longer we are part of an organisation it can become harder for us to ‘see the forest from the trees’. Taking some time to step back, reflect and ask ourselves “What are my actions saying, that might contradict what my mouth is saying?” can provide us with insights into culture. Or even asking your people what is getting in their way can also work!

We have our innovative & impactful organisation self-assessment tool, that is free and takes around 5 minutes to fill in. The tool gives you your most area to focus on first and also some personalised tips on what you can do to get started. If you're interested in creating a more innovative & impactful organisation, then take the self-assessment here.

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