By Costas Andriopoulos
Although the value of good leadership skills has been recognized since the times of Aristotle and Plato, today’s complex business environment continues to spotlight the need for effective leadership in organizations. Trends like shorter product life cycles, the increase in mergers and acquisitions, the increase in outsourcing activities, the constant drive for innovation and the unprecedented pace of change (to name but a few) are challenging leaders perhaps more than ever before. Interestingly, 84% of executives across a range of industries say that innovation is extremely or very important to their companies' growth strategy (McKinsey Global Survey, 2010).
There is no doubt that leaders' vision, actions and the way that they direct and support ‘followers’ in their creative endeavours, can mobilize creative thinking and activate innovation processes. So, what are the keys to effectively lead innovative employees?
1. Encourage communication and information exchange: Communication is vital to the innovation process since the cross-fertilization of different ideas/concepts is more likely to lead to more and better ideas. Individuals tend to make more connections when they are exposed to a diverse range of sources and this will eventually lead them to be more innovative. For instance, Smart Design, a New York-based design consultancy, promotes the acquisition of both internal and external information. Its employees are not only encouraged to communicate informally through social interaction and during the more formalized weekly staff meetings, but they are also regularly expected to gather information from outside the company. For example, its designers are encouraged to visit and observe how products are currently used by consumers in order to identify new opportunities for innovation. At other times, groups of designers may organize trips to exhibitions or several retail stores so that they can gather information related to the latest material and design trends in different industries.
2. Intellectually stimulate them: Innovative employees are motivated by interesting and complicated problems that require considerable intellectual skills. When the task at hand is complicated and intellectually demanding, Innovative individuals tend to focus all their energy and time on their jobs. Leaders, therefore, need to pursue projects that encourage intellectual engagement, a sense of personal achievement and a feeling of control over their professional lives.
3. Involve them: Leaders need to allow employees to choose the projects that they wish to work on, or to strive to provide them with projects that they find attractive and challenging. Another good tactic that effective leaders adopt is encouraging participation in the framing of the problem at hand and how best to approach it, as employees tend to show higher levels of satisfaction when they participate in such activities.
4. Create room for them to "manoeuvre". The Oscar-winning director Brad Bird (behind The Incredibles and Ratatouille) is known to encourage team members from different departments at Pixar to put forth their creativity in a harmonious way (like an orchestra). He encourages people to express their ideas, initiates brainstorming sessions to address key problems identified over the different stages of a movie and regularly steps back to let them work on the task. Autonomy allows creative/innovative individuals flexibility to experiment with new ideas/concepts. However, innovative leaders need to balance the amount of autonomy that they grant their employees with accountability; and this is often tricky. Too much control is often perceived by creative employees as a loss of autonomy, whereas too loose controls may allow employees to focus on pursuing their own passions and ignore the directions set by the organization.