Leading innovation in difficult times – hero or human?

“Necessity is the mother of invention”, or so the saying goes.  You’d therefore expect that disruptive change in the external market environment would result in rapid and dramatic innovation inside organisations on at least one of three levels: products & services, processes and systems, or the premise of the organisation.

Yet in my experience, a swift surge in innovation is not a guaranteed outcome, particularly in well-established organisations that have been successful up to that point.  In fact the more established the organisation, the more inertia there can be.

This makes sense when we consider that established, successful organisations have invested a great deal in the products that initially brought them success, and have worked hard to win efficiencies with good processes and systems that took time to build and implement.

They may even see themselves (and the organisation) as defined by their historical “cash cow” products and services, and have become attached to the modus operandi they have painstakingly developed to build and deliver them.  This can cause long-serving leaders and employees to identify strongly with what worked in the past – even though the present has suddenly morphed into something quite different.

Not only that, but with success comes stability, attracting employees who appreciate security and a definite career path.  Consequently, the proportion of left-field, creative, risk-tolerant employees tends to be far fewer than those found in start-ups or young fast-growth firms.

When things suddenly shift in the world outside, the typical knee-jerk reaction in a previously stable organisation can be to earnestly crank up the dial on what they already know what to do, attempting to be more perfect at doing what they did successfully before.  Yet doing the same thing repeatedly while hoping to get different results is not usually fruitful.

This isn’t helped by the natural shutting down of frontal brain lobes when panic and anxiety strike in individuals who are under pressure.  The Amygdala hijack, as defined by Danial Goleman in his seminal book “Emotional Intelligence: Why it can Matter more then IQ”, can cause people to default to familiar ways of doing things in a crisis, because they just can’t think creatively into a new space when the fight, flight or freeze response kicks in. What makes this doubly dangerous is when leaders are also panicking  and are caught in the same hijack.

It is therefore imperative that leaders in such organisations become good at several possibly underestimated capabilities…

Firstly the capability to self-regulate faster and more effectively than their reports, so that they regain composure quickly under stress.  This enables them to access their high-level creative thinking ahead of others, and lead with confidence and clarity into that messy ambiguous space, staying open to seeing opportunities for change and innovation that others will miss.

Secondly – and this is especially tough in sectors such as engineering and tech firms where left-brain intelligence (rational, logical) tends to dominate – leaders need to relate to the emotional needs of their reports.  What does this look like?  Initially meeting individuals where they are at, before attempting problem-solving.  This means understanding and assuaging their anxieties, while demonstrating authentic empathy.  This will foster a work environment that is psychologically safe to help people believe it’s ok to take more risks – crucial, as many will not be natural risk-takers.  Leaders who excel at this will be skilled at deep listening, at offering reassurance, at encouraging learning from mistakes, and will seek to improve the whole system rather than blame a single person for failures.

Thirdly, because innovation typically means experimenting and venturing into the unfamiliar, possibly failing a lot and not being sure of outcomes, leaders need great patience and precision when giving guidance.  They need to communicate clearly and transparently.  Security-loving employees will appreciate big steps being broken down into small ones.  Grand visions may inspire in times of trouble, but won’t always generate appropriate action when the leader leaves the room.  Detailed pictures of “what next” need to be spelled out.

In conclusion, when difficult times hit established engineering and tech firms, innovation is more likely to flourish best where leaders behave more like grounded, compassionate, and accessible human beings than colorful, distant, charismatic Superheroes.

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