Traditional, direction-setting leadership can work well when the solution to a problem is known and straightforward. But if the problem calls for a truly original response, no one can decide in advance what that response should be. So the role of a leader of innovation is not to set a vision and motivate others to follow it. It’s to create a community that is willing and able to innovate.

The rhetoric of innovation is often fun and creative. However, the reality is that innovation is hard work. It can be a very taxing and uncomfortable, both emotionally and intellectually. In fact, innovative problem solving can feel unnatural and even dangerous in organizations if leaders are not well skilled.

Create a Community that Innovates

Innovation awakens when diverse people collaborate to come up with a portfolio of new ideas. While some might feel as if there are “too many cooks in the kitchen”, collaboration should involve some passionate disagreement. Often organizations try to minimize differences, but that only suppresses the free flow of ideas and discussion that innovation needs. Leaders must work to manage this tension to create a supportive environment that allows people to share their ideas. On the contrary, leaders must create an environment that is confrontational enough to improve ideas and spark new thinking.

Innovation also requires trial and error. Innovative groups act rather than plan their way forward. Solutions may emerge that are usually different from anything anyone anticipated. Most organizations prefer to follow the normal ebb and flow. They set a goal, make a plan and assign responsibilities. They work through each step and monitor progress until the goal is achieved. Some might feel that this is a good management practice. However, in order for innovation to work, organizations cannot stick to the status quo. Leaders of innovation create environments that strike the right balance between the need for improvisation and the realities of performance.

Additionally, creating something that is new, unusual and useful involves moving beyond “either-or” thinking to “both-and” thinking. While this can be challenging, innovation requires combining option A and option B to integrate ideas and create a new and better option. It also requires leaders to be patient enough to let great ideas from people in all parts of the organization develop. Leaders must set clear parameters and create a sense of urgency, though, so that integrative decision making can actually occur.

Fostering a Willingness for Innovation

To build willingness, leaders must create communities that share a sense of purpose, values, and rules of engagement. If the point is to foster organizations that are willing and able to innovate over the long haul, then tomorrow’s innovative leaders must be identified and developed today.

Great leaders of innovation do not see their role as take-charge direction setters. Instead, they see their job as creators of a context in which others make innovation happen. That shift in understanding is vital to encourage the next generation of innovative leaders. It must spread through the organization and talent management practices because those with the potential to lead innovation are often invisible in current systems. Let them take on new roles that put their skills on display and give them the experiences and tools needed to unleash their innovation.

From Collective Genius, HBR. 

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