Leading a Culture of Innovation & Continuous Improvement

Tying recent posts together, and spring-boarding off a good comment shared about “the biggest waste lying in the ranks of poor leadership,” this post focuses on the critically-important role leadership plays in developing and sustaining a culture of innovation and continuous improvement.

Simply stated, given the challenges of creating a consistently effective innovative organization, nothing is more important
than leadership.

It requires powerful leadership skills to empower and unleash an organization’s creative talents and energy. In an organization without strong leadership, inspiring and empowering people to contribute their ideas innovations will be scarce. An innovative culture is not the default position — it must be carefully created.

But empowerment, important as that is, is nowhere near enough.

Leadership must also create a challenging vision around which to rally the organization’s creative energies. This vision must be grounded in a deep understanding of the market and of the daily struggles of the people who make up that market.

Understanding the market is much easier for a small company where everyone deals with real customer needs every day. But as organizations grow, they expand like a balloon — more mass and less surface area. The surface area has the chance to get close to the external customer’s needs.

So, as a company grows, leadership must maintain or create a mechanism that will ensure that an  understanding of the customer’s needs can penetrate beyond the surface area into the heart of the organization. The same is true of internal functions that work together like a chain of customers. As organizations grow, departments grow and they too develop ‘more mass and less surface area’ — creating the familiar silo phenomenon.

In addition, leadership of innovative organizations must, without stifling creativity, challenge the organization’s efforts with the necessary, market-driven constraints. Without the right constraints,
empowerment cannot succeed. It is too easy to become satisfied with a creative idea before it has been developed into something really workable. An organization that tries to empower innovation without creating the right market-driven constraints, can easily suffocate in an avalanche of incomplete or impractical ideas.
Because they are not fully developed to address the real, but perhaps unspecified, constraints, the ideas cannot be implemented and quite soon people cease to feel empowered.

This is a tall order, and it becomes easy to see why innovation isn’t easier to come by despite all the human talent and energy brought to bear. But creating an innovative culture is, in itself, a creative challenge. By increasing our understanding of the challenges and constraints, we increase our ability to focus our own leadership talents on the right things to make it happen.