Telling Employees To Be Innovative Doesn’t Make Them Innovative


This article originally appeared in my Forbes Leadership Column

test alt text

In writing this article, I’ve woven together—and disguised—bits and pieces of true stories from my own client base and from those of close colleagues. My intention is not to betray any confidences, but rather to illustrate challenges that are common today in large organizations.

A CEO asked for help in “sprinkling innovation projects” across his organization and confided that a kind of “initiative fatigue” had spread across the company. There was wisdom in that statement, because they are large and diverse, and they take on way too much.

He went on to say that we used to be a culture of enabling, empowering, trusting and collaborating and we’ve lost some of these qualities.

Four or five years ago, they went through this era of centralization again, because the market is so dynamic, and they were seeking more immediacy in their actions. Since then, they became more decentralized again.

Why, I asked, do you believe all those things are happening? Why are you shifting back and forth and still failing to create more immediacy and agility?

He wasn’t sure, especially because they “never punished innovative ideas that failed.”

Something bad won’t happen isn’t much of an incentive. You can’t just restrain yourself from punishing the behaviors you want; leaders must model the behaviors they wish to engender.

Years ago, when I worked at SGI, Disney had this unwritten rule that from senior executives down to frontline employees, no one should ever walk by a piece of trash. I saw senior executives walking across a busy park, bend over and pick up a piece of garbage. That was their culture, they believed in it and they modeled the associated behaviors.

I’m allergic to vagueness. “I won’t punish you” is vague. Will you reward me? Will you collaborate with me? Will you encourage and celebrate my team and me? How important is this to you, personally?

Leaders who fail to model innovation seldom see much in the way of innovation across their organization. You must be genuinely excited about creating positive and meaningful change. You must be eager to roll up your sleeves and participate.

If you want better numbers but you don’t enjoy the process of producing such numbers, you probably aren’t the best choice to lead in this kind of environment.

If you want to create a culture in which employees think of innovation as part of their everyday existence, what are you doing to model that behavior? What are you doing to create fresh thinking, creativity, enlightened problem-solving and a passion for positive change?

(One leader actually responded: it’s HR’s job to do innovation training.)

Do you spend a lot of your time defending the status quo or are you constantly looking for opportunities to challenge it? Do you talk about it?

As the saying goes, don’t tell ‘em. Show ‘em.

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on whatsapp