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Innovation: It's More Than a Buzzword, It's a Leadership Style


I think we can all agree that "innovation" has been one of the most popular terms of the 21st century - and rightfully so. When I think of innovation, I think of people who are considered some of the top innovators of recent history - Steve Jobs (Apple), Bill Gates (Microsoft), Elon Musk (Tesla), Sheryl Sandberg (Google and Facebook), Sheila Lirio Marcelo (Care.com). These disruptively innovative minds have created some amazing tools that have shaped the 21st century and the Western way of life. While these anomalous ideas and companies have had a huge impact on our world, they are an incredibly small percentage of the innovative stratosphere. Innovation does, and should, happen everyday, even among us normal folk.

What has emerged from the age of innovation is a relatively new leadership philosophy called "innovation leadership". Not a very innovative title, but stick with me... Innovation leadership is a philosophy and technique that combines different leadership styles to influence employees to produce creative ideas, products, and services. This deviates a bit from the traditional leadership philosophy of having to move quickly to maintain relevance, or drown. Innovation, by nature, takes time, is often synonymous with failure, and forces a leader to understand and admit that they, themselves, don't have all the answers.

Several themes emerge from research on teams who innovate well. Three of these themes are 1) teams are diverse and allow room for diverse thought 2) There is a creative and safe space for innovation to occur, and 3) Failure is encouraged, as long as the failure is used to learn and move forward.

Let's dissect these just a bit... Oxford defines Diversity as the practice or quality of including or involving people from a range of different social and ethnic backgrounds and of different genders, sexual orientations, etc. Diversity is a significant cornerstone of a successfully innovative team. If your team consists of 10 individuals who look alike, come from the same socio-economic class, have similar backgrounds, and all agree with one another, you will beat your head against the wall trying to come up with new and disruptive ideas. Diverse teams create diverse ideas and can really awaken the creative beast hidden within so many problems.

Creating a space for diverse and creative thought is not only a room full of beanbag chairs and white boards. This involves organizational buy in, which can sometimes come with organizational change. Creating a culture of innovation within your organization will bust up old habits, and can light a fire under your staff. Allowing your people to think creatively and accepting ideas that may derail your normal train of thought is crucial to establishing trust and really start being disruptive - in a good way.

Finally, we have all heard that you have to let your people "fail forward". What this really means as a leaders, is that you have to not only be ok with a certain amount of failure, but you have to encourage it. Failure is one of the best learning tools out there because it gives real data toward what NOT to do. As a leader, encouraging your people to fail while making progress each time they fail, is tough! You want them to succeed and can see their failure as your own. This is just what good leaders do... But allowing your people to fail is a great way to create new ideas and products that others are afraid to actualize or create. For instance.. Elon Musk's first PayPal product was listed as one of the 10 WORST business ideas in 1999. He then went bankrupt, sold PayPal, and created the Tesla and Space X empire of today.

Leading your people in a new age of innovation, technology, and fast paced business is only going to become more challenging. Innovation leadership is meant to continuously change to the environment in which it is applied. Innovation isn't always the next big machine learning or artificial intelligence advancement. In this context, innovation is learning how to lead innovative teams in their creation of new things and great ideas that will make your organization, and your people, better. Start strong, and finish well!


- Travis Hearne, Principal, Titanium Leadership Coaching and Consulting

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