Leading for innovation: the one thing you need to know

I have seen a lot of blog posts lately with titles such as ‘The 20 Top Leadership Traits’. It reminds me of magazines at Christmas emblazoned with ‘300 ideas for an easy Christmas’. So I thought it would be simpler to identify the one thing a leader for innovation cannot do without: it’s curiosity.

Curiosity is the key to all things innovative. We have known this for a long time. In Ecclesiastes it says ‘Be curious in unnecessary matters for more things will be revealed to thee than men understand’.  Let me explain why I think curiosity is so important.

Curiousity about yourself

A leader must also be a learner and that means being curious about yourself. To lead well you need to understand your strengths and weaknesses, adapt to new situations and learn all the time. I find active reflection a very valuable part of my day. I think about a situation, how I have behaved and what happened and reflect on how I might have behaved differently to get better outcomes. Reflection should not just be navel gazing, that is why I say active reflection: it should result in some learning about yourself and be a catalyst for improvement.

Curiosity about ideas

As a leader you have a big responsibility to support new ideas. New ideas are fragile and can be killed by a shrug or a negative comment, especially if it comes from a person with power. So instead of saying ‘We don’t do things like that’ or ‘We’ve tried that’ when a new idea comes along, a leader needs to be curious about it and show interest. Even if it turns out to be a bad idea, a great deal of damage can be done by crushing it: not only will you lose a possibly good idea, you will also send a message to staff that you are not interested in hearing new ideas. In the first weeks of my starting a new job there was an ideas competition. As a fresh new recruit, I could see lost of ways of doing things differently so I submitted an idea. At the whole organisation meeting about the future the CEO announced that there had been five ideas for the competition but that they were all ‘rubbish’ and that was that. I never gave him another of my ideas.

Curiosity about people

Of course whilst a new idea is necessary for innovation, it is not sufficient. It needs to be the right idea for the situation and you need to make it happen. You will not be able to make it happen without the right team. You will not know who that team needs to be or what skills they need if you are not curious about people. Being curious about people you meet, your own staff, beneficiaries and volunteers will introduce you to a wealth of skills and experiences. I met a social entrepreneur recently who knew he wanted a particular style of crafted website. He had no web skills or art skills but because he was very curious about people he happened to know an animator and a web design person. Connecting them together resulted in the look he wanted for his website. Being curious about people allows you to make the connections you need to innovate.
Curious enough to take a risk

Innovation by definition involves doing something you have not done before. That involves taking an informed risk. If you are curious you will want to know what will happen if you try something. It will give you the courage to take the risks that you need to innovate. Whilst I said I would stick to one quality, I’m going to sneak another (connected) one in here…

Courage

Innovation requires courage: the courage to take a risk with something new; the courage to hold on to a shared vision and not lose your nerve when those around your are doubting; the courage to trust a team to develop an idea with freedom to experiment and adapt the idea; the courage to admit when you have to give up and a new thing has failed; the courage to be honest and open with your team; and the courage to challenge orthodoxies, ask questions, break rules and live with uncertainty.

To quote from Ecclesiastes again

Just as there is no perfect moment, there is no perfect knowing, no certainty. To remain inactive until you are certain of the result is to do nothing at all. So accept uncertainty.’

Have courage: try something new!

This blog was contributed by Katherine William-Powlett. Katherine is an Innovation specialist, and blogs about innovation for the National Council for Voluntary Organisation Blog, and has written a series of posts on Leading for Innovation.

Further reading article: The Demand for Curiosity Creativity and Innovation

More on Innovation:  http://www.ncvo-vol.org.uk/innovation

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About Centre for Creativity in Professional Practice
The Centre for Creativity in Professional Practice is an interdisciplinary research centre in the Cass Business School, City University London. http://www.cass.city.ac.uk/research-and-faculty/centres/creativity

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