Leading Collaboration, Creativity and Innovation

In 2006, I had an article published in Leadership Excellence Magazine...I came across it today and it continues to be very relevant to the changing landscape of the business world.  I hope you enjoy...


“Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”  This quote by George S. Patton, the great American General of World War I and II offers insight for today’s leader.  Whether it is ingenuity, creativity, innovation or growth that you are looking for—the key message is allowing people to experiment and surprise you with their results, solutions, options and ideas.  Most of today’s companies are embroiled in global battles involving new competitors, new marketplaces, new products and services that are faster, smaller and more focused.  As a result, the need for innovation and creativity has taken a more central spotlight than ever.  The need to be creative and innovative is now outside of the normal “creative” functions. Leaders need to apply creativity and innovation cross-functionally and with a diverse spectrum of persons in an organization that cover many different types of thought and thinking styles.

The tactical side of creativity and innovation—the what we are doing and how we are doing it—come as a result of how the leaders in an organization embrace and enable three distinct foci:  The Climate; the Thinking; and the Actions or Processes that are undertaken to activate the desired results. 

“Whenever you see a successful business someone made a courageous decision.” 
Peter F. Drucker

The Climate of the organization is a snapshot of how we are treating ourselves, each other and the ideas that are generated.  In general, are we taking risks, remaining open-minded to newness?  Are we able to genuinely foster the environment that supports the kind of ambiguity that leads to newness? 

Masterful leaders of innovation have honed the skills that allow them to manage interactions and accommodate the emotional needs of communication.  In many corporate environments, we find ourselves in “protectionist communication.”  People waste valuable emotional energy covering their tracks, making sure that they are “seen” as doing the right thing and “heard” when they feel they need to be heard.  We waste energy on protecting ourselves when we are in an environment that we perceive as being ascetic, punishing or lacking collaboration. The result is that we have less time or energy to focus on work in the moment, to be available for new thoughts and ideas.  When the external environment starts to become more collaborative and supportive, most of our energy becomes available to focus on tasks, action and growth.  This in turn, has a major affect on our internal or intrinsic states.  As we work in a collaborative and supportive environment, we begin to trust ourselves more—we take chances and risk more, knowing that our colleagues will not judge us and will support us.  We become more available to ourselves to be in the flow of work and be available to others.

“In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvised most effectively have prevailed.” 
Charles Darwin

The leaders’ role in this is to establish a climate of trust with their teams.    We can think of trust as a function:

Trust fx = Quality of Communication x Quantity of Communication/Risk

A strong leader supports quality communication by understanding the subtleties that enable creativity and innovation -- such as searching for meaning, paraphrasing, using language that supports beginning ideas and applying developmental thinking rather than decision making modes. Communication that is characterized by these techniques will naturally encourage a more positive climate amongst the team members.  As comfort grows amongst the team, more risk taking will emerge in the ideas – and it’s often the riskiest ideas that propel business forward.  Subsequently, the trust levels within the team will increase as does the opportunity to be creative and innovative.

“Instead of pouring knowledge into people’s heads, we need to help them grind a new set of eyeglasses so that we can see the world in a new way.”
 J. S. Brown

In innovation, the leaders’ role is to encourage and model a mindset to think differently about the problems, opportunities and the solutions that are presented.  There are two distinct worlds in which we are function at any given moment:  The operational world, in which we are very structured, precise, governed by rules and routine; and the experimental world where we allow ourselves to play with ideas, develop new thinking, and be approximate, speculative and curious.  Often there is an ongoing tension within us and within teams between being safe and taking chances with our work.  Leaders who deliberately employ techniques where wishing, speculating, approximate thinking and absurdity are allowed to flourish; help people break out of the processes that give the same old results.  These thinking techniques help us cultivate newness and intrigue within our work product.  The aim is to make the unfamiliar familiar, the absurd have value and to make connections from the seemingly irrelevant. 

For example, during a problem solving session with a spirits manufacturer, a senior executive wished “I wish we had our own country…where we could make all the rules…”  The ensuing work created one of the most successful advertising and marketing campaigns, generating many times return on investment over the ten years and a market share increase to over 33% from  0.33%.

The ultimate solutions to problems are rational; the process for thinking of fresh solutions is not.  Right brain thinking processes allow the mind to diverge from the current point of understanding—the problem.  Many great thinkers have learned to get as far away from the problem as possible to allow true breakthroughs to happen.  Some of the most revered minds in history—Da Vinci, Einstein, Galileo, Pinkerton—would remove their task from their thoughts and playfully generate seemingly irrelevant material which they would connect back to their problem.  This would allow them to experiment with fresh ideas in order to develop fresh solutions.  This “excursion” process supports creative thinking and helps the mind get into the absurd.  Then the next step is to force a connection back to the problem.

Methodologies on helping teams and organizations can best generate and capitalize on innovative thinking can be assimilated into any organization.  It is the practice of these methodologies and the visible use by leaders that ingrains them into the fabric of the company.  Methods are systematic, but are far from rigid.  They are about directing the creative and innovative process through phases and loopbacks to produce innovative and feasible conclusions and actions.

What I hear I forget
What I see I remember
What I do I know
Chinese Proverb

A leader’s work is about helping sustain a high-performing team.  Acting as a guide and a coach, strong leaders remain mindful that the ability to be creative and innovative is lying dormant within their team.  Their job is to help them draw out this ability, tap creative thinking, and help the team turn fresh ideas into practical, workable results.  Leaders need resist succumbing to daily work pressures.  Leaders of innovation know when to be patient and delay decisions rather than staying within the confines of “yes” and “no” decision making.   Many of the greatest leaders steer clear of the command and control approach and instead focus on building and sustaining alignment around the goals of the organization.  This alignment is how they can allow for experimentation.   To paraphrase Patton:  “Focus on the what rather than the how.”

"There is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to institute a new order of things."
Machiavelli

To carry out a new order of things, Leaders who seek innovation provide opportunistic and real opportunities for their teams to be innovative.  A good start is to identify two to three, highly visible, real-time projects that embark on the processes of using the innate creativeness of their team.  The key is to get sponsorship above and skills development below to support the project.  Ideally, the opportunities are cross-functional and multi-leveled in the organization. 

Often, there is no greater thinking to address a problem or opportunity than from those who are not connected to the problem at all.  In fact, history has shown us that the most breakthroughs often come from those who offer seemingly irrelevant ideas.  For example, while working with a large cruise ship line, an administrator came up with an idea that saved millions of dollars in fuel costs when she asked the question “Why do our ships do the routes they do?”  In exploring this seemingly silly question, it was realized that the routes could be changed so that the routes flowed with the currents, cutting fuel consumption.  This administrator felt open enough to make the offer in a group of ship captains, operations directors, engineers and the like—she took a risk and it paid off.  What may have been lost if she didn’t speak up?

The leader’s role is facilitative.  Facilitators focus on managing the interactions and on stimulating fresh thinking.  The aim is to bring new power and perspectives into the mix of the team’s thinking. 

Innovation for innovation’s sake is not the answer, but innovation with a purpose will drive results.