How can middle and frontline team leaders enable successful innovation with their teams?
Using a diagnostic called the Situational Outlook Questionnaire (SOQ), we have worked with leaders who have improved their team’s work climate for innovation within 9-12 months, and found that climate is a ‘lead’ indicator of innovation performance.
The various teams we’ve worked with have introduced new services and extended existing ones; one saved millions of pounds and won a corporate award; many raised their profile within their organisations and their marketplaces. Manage the team climate and the results will (usually) follow.
The first post looked at how leaders connect people to purposeful goals, agree freedom to act within boundaries and build team trust. The second reviewed how teams make the most of limited time for effective idea development, add spontaneity and humour and reduce interpersonal conflict.
This post focuses on the final three SOQ dimensions:
- Idea support: improving support for ideas
- Debate: optimising the debate process and
- Risk-taking: taking measured risks with unknowable outcomes
7. Improving support for ideas
Honest, constructive support for your idea will affect whether you’re prepared to say it loud next time. As one team member said:
“Everyone is incredibly supportive and as a consequence I am not afraid to put forward ideas. I feel I can present a kernel of an idea to the team and they are happy to build on it or challenge it in honest and constructive way.”
This isn’t always the case. A more common state is that people are challenged by genuinely novel thinking. Training can help here. We have worked with teams and helped them learn the basics of creative problem solving such as using divergent thinking before convergent. Freewheel before judging, and be disciplined in separating these out.
8. Optimising the debate
Debate is about sharing diverse perspectives. In some organisations a shared value of ‘consultation’ can mean that there is more talk than action: the amount of debate is too high. In this case, we’ve found that building a shared strategic direction can help, as it focuses thoughts on what matters most and channels ideas.
9. Taking measured risks
Risk-taking refers to our capacity to accept uncertainty and ambiguity. Goran Ekvall, the originator of the SOQ, thought that risk-taking was the dimension that predicted whether teams would make incremental or more radical innovation.
There is a type of innovation bind whereby the need for innovation surfaces uncertainties about outcomes. These uncertainties raise anxiety levels, which, in turn, lead us back to the familiar and safer ground of habit and away from precisely what we need. When new insights are needed, people have to learn to walk a metaphorical tightrope!
The English romantic poet Keats talked about our capacity for ‘…being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’. He called this ‘negative capability’, and it refers to our capacity to bear the unknown, and continue to explore. Without this, we are likely to craft neat resolutions, with the goal of reducing our anxieties and taking us back to safer, habitual thinking.
Keats’ insights for poetry have been applied to leadership practice, by Simpson, French and Harvey* from UWE, Bristol. Leaders sometimes have to act when the next steps are not clear, when teams are doing work they have not done before, and when an unconscious process of incubation is needed to allow insights time to emerge.
In teams where risk-taking is healthy, four broad strategies seem to help taking action into an unknowable future:
- Noticing simplistic problem-framing: For example, people will sometimes resolve a thorny work challenge into an either/or dilemma, often with imagined, damaging consequences from taking either action. These become no-win options. Leaders with a more agile mindset challenge this framing. One leader of a group of educational colleges talked about how he would not allow his senior team members to present either/or dilemmas to him. The creativity was often to be found somewhere in between these polarised options and he encouraged his team to generate them.
- Attachment to the learning process, not outcomes: People often find the means to experiment without being too attached to specific results. They accept that some things will work whilst others will not, and they keep trying new approaches. They realise that not all mistakes will materially affect our desired outcomes. Leaders encourage their teams to find means of testing approaches, where risks will be lower and learning will be valuable.
- Stating mixed feelings: Change brings contradictory feelings: excitement, anxiety, optimism, maybe fear. The authentic public stating of having mixed emotions enables people to accept this truth, relax enough, consider the shades of grey involved in the work and widen their thinking.
- Just support: Finally, in the confidence that we’re doing the best we can, leaders can promise support while not knowing what will happen. As one person said:
© Bluegreen Learning Ltd
Find out how warm your innovation climate is and what you can do to change it.
*Peter Simpson, Robert French and Charles Harvey: Leadership and Negative Capability, published in Human Relations, 2002, 55(10):1209-1226. ISSN 0018-7267