Fostering Innovation Starts With Great Leadership

John Metselaar, Professor of Management Practice in "Leading Innovation" 30/04/2019 Leadership, Innovation

Three times a year, Solvay Brussels School organises an “MBA-essentials” programme for Pfizer. During our last session, I gave an intensive one-day workshop on innovation leadership. Here are a few insights about the creation of an innovation mindset.

The fact that the first word of this “Leading and Living Innovation” seminar is about leadership is no coincidence. I believe all significant advances in life start with leadership. While innovation also starts with leadership, it doesn’t end there.

We’ve come to live in a fast-changing world where “you need to do things to learn what to do”. This requires everyone to get involved in the innovation game: it needs to be a collective effort at all levels of the company. Hence, leaders need to actively encourage an innovation mindset.

But how?

Safety and accountability to create the “Learning Zone”

Creating an innovation mindset combines accountability and psychological safety. Making people feel safe and at the same time rendering them accountable might seem paradoxical, but it is not. Accountability is about owning up to what you do: your achievements as well as your mistakes. The key here is how you react to people’s mistakes. Holding them accountable is not the same as blaming them. This is where psychological safety comes into the picture. Your people need to feel they can make mistakes and accept responsibility for them without being afraid of a backlash.

Combining accountability with psychological safety creates a learning environment, a culture where it is OK, or, rather, expected, to make mistakes, because this is how you learn. Indeed, curiosity and learning are at the basis of innovative ideas: these are not born perfect, but rather carefully crafted during a process of trial and error. When people know they can safely experiment, their creativity will flow and they will learn, grow and innovate.

In such a culture, leaders are not there to tell people what to do, but rather to create and support learning zones in their organization. Leadership is a responsibility, not a privilege, and definitely not a position.  Leaders are there to serve, not to dictate.

Put your mind, heart and body into it

What makes a great leader – one who is able to effectively create this culture of innovation? I think it must happen on three levels:

  • Mind: you have to develop a growth mindset, to become open to new ideas, to be ready to experiment, and let your people do the experimentation and learn from it.
  • Heart: you have to accept your vulnerabilities, to stop hiding them, and to lay down your mask of “I know it all and am in control”. For most managers, this requires tremendous courage - but you need to lead by example.  Only then will you be able to create a culture of authenticity, openness, and risk-taking around you!
  • Body: You have to walk the talk, to permanently observe not only how you talk to others, but also how you behave during the interaction – what kind of messages you send through your behaviour. Being in touch with yourself allows you to be more in touch with others!

The learning game

I also bring my philosophy of “engagement” into my teaching sessions: I try to “lift people into the learning game”.

In order to achieve this, I create an environment of psychological safety, “the shared belief by the group that the classroom is safe for interpersonal risk-taking”. Life is more interesting outside your comfort zone, and this attitude encourages the participants to really live the mind-heart-body philosophy.

I combine this feeling of safety with an appropriate sense of accountability through interactivity during the lectures, and by using relevant, illustrative case studies. The cases are chosen from different industries to open the minds and allow for horizontal learning. The students imagine and analyze real-life applications of the subjects introduced during the lectures. They explore them in depth in small groups, and report their conclusions to the plenary.

This allows higher order learning by closing the circle to grasp the core concepts. It’s very powerful tool.

The “So what?” question

This approach allows me to pass on a large amount of actionable insights, even in relatively short sessions. After every module, I always ask the “so what?” question.  How do the participants plan to apply what they have learned into their daily life? How will they measure their achievements and progress? This gives them time to reflect on the key insights and allows them to internalize what it means for them.

When a company like Pfizer invests so heavily in training, developing, and growing its people, it is critical to make sure that the knowledge they acquire will also have a direct, tangible impact inside the company.

Want to know what Solvay Brussels School can do for your company? Request a tailor-made programme!

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