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Why Your Innovation Leadership Training Will Fail
June 18, 2013 at 11:43 AM
I am a leader by default, only because nature does not allow a vacuum.– Bishop Desmond Tutu
If your organization is conducting innovation leadership training, the odds are it’s failing. And there’s a very simple reason why: You are focused on training leaders to lead people, rather than training leaders to build and lead systems. And if that’s the case, you are surely failing.
Our culture tends to place an inordinate amount of attention on the individual leader. We want to idolize our organizational leaders as heroes, and we want to think of individuals as the prime cause of things like innovation. We write case studies about innovative institutions and innovative ideas and generally attribute the innovation to the individual leader . . . the great, daring, breakthrough thinker. No wonder that when we set out to create training and development for innovation leaders we tend to think about . . . the individual leader. And as a consequence, we tend to think about what individuals can do in an organization to create or encourage innovation . . . in other individuals.
The problem arises from not asking the right strategic question at the outset, viz: “Is the primary cause of innovation people or systems?” Setting aside the centuries-old debate over nature vs nature, or people vs. conditions, think for a moment about causing, and specifically ask the question: “How do we cause innovation?” Here is a syllogism for consideration as an answer to that question:
The Innovation Syllogism:
Innovation is a product of culture (not individuals).
Culture is an emergent factor of systems (not individuals).
Therefore, systems drive innovation (not individuals).
If the logic and assumptions of this syllogism hold, then you may find that the most critical aspect of building an innovative organization — systems — is absent from your training and development planning. As examples of how systems issues can influence your innovation strategy, consider these three characteristics of innovative cultures and ask whether each is more profoundly influenced by individual leaders or systems.
TRUST: Innovative cultures are known to have a remarkably high level of trust. People trust other people, and the inclination to trust is simply an assumed value. If your goal is to infuse trust as a value into your organization, how do you do that? Is it through individuals leading others to value and practice trust, or through the development of systems to cause trust? Of course, without leadership that values and engenders trust, no organization can become a trust culture. But leadership in this case is necessary but insufficient. A quick look at systems within an organization can show that trust as an organizational value may be doomed from the start, when the systems run counter to trust. Think of “win-lose” structures in incentives. If you can only win if someone else loses, what are the odds of your developing a working relationship grounded in trust? Where systems operate to constrain trust, no amount of leadership will serve to create trusting relationships. Systems drive trust, not people.
DIVERSITY: Another known feature of innovative cultures is diversity . . . of people, points of view, ideas, ethics, and beliefs. It is axiomatic that innovation requires iteration, constant challenge, testing, playing, and randomness. Innovative organizations require leadership that values and welcomes diversity. But again, leadership alone is insufficient. Systems will drive (or diminish) diversity much more profoundly than will individual leadership. A rigidly defined process for success in an organization — the deeply embedded, powerful processes of evaluation, promotion, recognition and reward that are present in all organizations — will determine more than any other factor, including leadership, the level of diversity within an organization. A leader can demand, cajole and preach diversity; but if operative systems recognize and promote “organizational thinking,” the result will be organizational — not diverse — thinking. Systems will drive diversity, not people.
RISK: Innovative organizations encourage risk, and understand failure. Without leadership that understands and contextualizes failure, risk will be a negative organizational value. Yet again, leadership is necessary, but insufficient. Leadership can pronounce and declare ’til the cows come home that risk and failure are a part of the value system in an organization; but if systems prohibit risk taking and punish failure, the result will be a risk-averse culture. Where organizational systems link personal success to the absence of failure, there will be diminished risk-taking. Systems will drive risk, not people.
So, if you feel a certain level of dissatisfaction with the outcomes of your innovation leadership, a certain unease about your approach to leadership training and development, consider this question: Should you be thinking a little more about how you build systems, and a little less about how you develop individual leaders? You might be surprised by where this reflection will take you.
More about Henry Doss:
I'm a former banker turned venture capitalist, musician and over-committed volunteer. My firm, T2 Venture Capital, is dedicated to building great start up companies, and leading the buildout of the ecosystems that cause them. My role is Chief Strategy Officer. I am deeply interested in how we learn about ourselves and the world, and how that learning translates into innovative business and educational leadership. I have an abiding curiosity about English Literature, physics, computing, and the Humanities in general. I also serve as Executive-in-Residence for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at UNC Charlotte, where I indulge my interest in pedagogy, graduate studies in Early Modern Literature, and opining. And I'm a singer-songwriter wannabe.