Saying there is a memorable moment in the TV series ‘Blackadder goes Forth’ is like saying that the sea contains a fish! Quite frankly, Rowan Atkinson is a comedy genius. However, comedy or not, there is one interchange which sticks in my mind, as it encapsulates the traditional view of leadership.

Speaking to the troops before they go over the top, General Melchett seeks to reassure them by commenting that “If you should falter, remember that Captain Darling and I are behind you.” To which Captain Blackadder replies “…about thirty-five miles behind you!”

And that’s it: the current state of leadership in a nutshell – remote, uninvolved, full of grand schemes, visions and strategies, all which are passed on for others to deliver while leaders divert themselves elsewhere. It’s the elephant in the room and an inconvenient truth which needs addressing if leaders are to build organisations capable of shaping the future.

So, if you recognise that view of leadership, then this thought piece or even the concept of ‘building a culture of innovation’ isn’t going to mean much to you, particularly when it comes to core ingredients such as collaboration, empowerment, creativity and risk. But there again even if you ascribe to a more up-to-date version of leadership such as that promoted by The Leadership Challenge™ you may well find that leading for innovation requires a radical shift in leadership style.

The trouble is that even if you work in an organisation which believes in training for leadership from the outset, the chances are that some of your training will relate to management, coaching, communicating and some to leadership, but it will be very rare for personal development plans to focus on leading for innovation, becoming an innovation leader. Partly that’s understandable. When many of today’s senior leaders were working their way up through the ranks, the concept of innovation as an embedded, organisation-wide capability was in its infancy, if it was around at all.

Leading for innovation

So the chances are that leadership abilities have been moulded to deploy a business as usual approach that focuses on operational efficiency, risk mitigation and delivery for today rather than shaping the future. This was partly created by the demand for short-term marketplace gains and instant results, forcing leaders to rely on research, hard facts and formulaic ways of operating. And because everyone was doing it, there was no drive to be different. But times move on and as IDEP recently commented in their article, Innovation Leadership for Uncertain Times [1] “businesses are feeling the limits of traditional thinking.” The VUCA world has become a fact of life and what traditionally stood leaders in good stead is no longer fit for future purpose.

So how do we lead for innovation? In my article for The Future Shapers “What mindset does innovation leadership really take” [2] I commented that “Our business model might be delivering today but as leaders our task is to focus on learning, experimenting and pushing the boundaries to build what customers and consumers want tomorrow not today.” And that transformation starts by learning to look at the world anew to turn traditional thinking on its head in order to become one of ‘the future shapers’ not at best a fast-follower.

And what better place to start than by reframing the VUCA world. Traditional vernacular may see the VUCA terminology as Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous, but I would argue that the role of the innovation leader is to reframe the VUCA world into something like this:

  • Not Volatile but Visionary – creating clarity and future vision
  • Not Uncertain but Unbounded – the status quo is dead, the world is anyone’s oyster, there are no constraints
  • Not Complex but Creative – doing things differently is the key
  • Not Ambiguous but Ambitious – don’t grow sales, shape the future and change the world

A new world for innovation

When you look at business in those terms then you are introduced to a whole new world of possibilities. All of a sudden your people are no longer quasi autonomous process followers, your customers are no longer item counts, and your suppliers are no longer a regrettably necessary cost base. Instead, everyone and every organisation, your ecosystem, represents a potential source of ideas and collaboration in a quest to deliver innovation-led solutions; driving change and shaping the future.

Writing in 2015 for the Stanford Social Innovation Review [3] Peter Senge, Hal Hamilton, & John Kania highlighted some of the concepts outlined in the book ‘Leading from the Emerging Future’ [4]. One concept in particular resonated with me and what I think form part of the core requirements for innovation leadership; the triple approach of opening the mind, opening the heart and opening the will. This ties in closely with my own perspective on the way in which innovation is an outcome of people’s desire and willingness to do things differently. And this ability to do things differently is a byproduct of leadership which is prepared to step away from systemic training and embrace the art of the possible.

That’s not to say that system has no part to play in innovation, merely that system should be the tool of innovation rather than its master. Similarly, leaders may decide to deploy a few quick wins to engender enthusiasm on the road to innovation but those quick wins should be seen as a means to an end not the end in itself.

Perhaps that’s the difference between leaders who are trying to deploy their leadership training in the pursuit of innovation and those who understand that leading for innovation requires a resetting of purpose, culture and most importantly, mindset. The former may well get the quick wins but because they are unable to envisage and change the fabric of the organisation, long-term innovation capability and culture never develops.

The world we now operate in isn’t the world of old, dominated by organisations that were designed decades ago around control, efficiency and predictability. Those traits now ironically form the basis for the greatest threats to those organisations. As leaders, our core function is to keep our organisations relevant and that now means continuousy transforming rather than commissioning a transformation programme once a decade. We must also fully understand and embrace what it means to strategically shape the future or we risk creating strategies which appear on the surface to be innovative or even worse we self-profess are innovative but underneath have little substance, alignment or impact.

So how do you stop killing any chance of developing organisation-wide innovation capability and start opening up yourself and the organisation to the potential for change, transformation and shaping the future?

If it we’re as simple as having more insight or leadership and management muscle then organisations like Nokia, Kodak et al, which had access to all that and more in bucket loads, would be shaping the future right now, but they’re not. Why, because leading an organisation that can shape the future through innovation is different so, I was interested to read a piece recently in which Dr Amantha Imber, founder of Inventium outlined five approaches to giving creativity a chance to thrive. [5] Her approach echoes my own thinking particularly around concepts such as loosening the reins, stopping seeing risk and failure as dirty words and experimentation before implementation. This latter concept ties in closely with design thinking which has a lot to contribute towards the development of successful innovation capability.

Innovation has the power to change lives so leading for innovation cannot and must not be seen as simply another step on the leadership ladder. As an innovation leader, being prepared to stop, reflect, open yourself up and shift your mindset to the art of the possible and the technology enhanced, diversified, VUCA world we see evolving before us is the first step in transforming your organisation to one which embraces creativity and shapes the future. Unlike General Melchett, Innovation leaders don’t sit 35 miles behind the line, they question whether the line should be there at all.

[1] http://www.iedp.com/articles/innovation-leadership-for-uncertain-times/
[2] https://thefutureshapers.com/mindset-innovation-leadership-really-take/
[3] https://ssir.org/articles/entry/the_dawn_of_system_leadership#bio-footer
[4] http://www.ottoscharmer.com/publications/books
[5] http://www.hcamag.com/hr-news/how-leaders-are-killing-workplace-innovation-235513.aspx