Publicity October 2015

The leadership Japan series

The idea generation sweet spot

Doing more, better and faster with less, screams of innovation. This could be at an incremental level—a kaizen (betterment) approach of continuous improvement or it could be through breakthrough leaps.

Either way, there is a dynamic in play between processes and people that is critical for our success. How much scope can we allow in the creative process? At the practical level, this is really asking how many mistakes—and how huge—we will tolerate to achieve idea generation.

Managers manage processes. Leaders also manage processes, but they have an additional and important role to build people who can come up with ideas.

In any workplace there will be some degree of compliance required regarding regulations, laws, safety concerns and so on. If these are overly tight, then there is usually not a great deal of tolerance for errors. If it is a laissez-faire environment, with no controls, then we will wind up in court and possibly in jail.

Somewhere between compliance and chaos is the sweet spot environment most suitable for our people to be really innovative.

By its very nature, change requires us to step out of our comfort zone, because we are either doing something old in a new way or something completely new. Getting people to step out of their comfort zones is fraught with difficulty.

How do we encourage people to come up with new and creative ideas? Standing in front of the whiteboard, felt pen at the ready and looking expectedly at the audience for their ideas is probably one of the most common—and one of the worst—methods. To top it off, saving time by critiquing the idea flow as it emerges is a guaranteed innovation killer.

Take a good look around your organisation and check how you encourage the pursuit of ideas and do your brainstorming. Your actual technique may be harming the idea creation environment. If this concerns you, let me know, because we have a great system for producing ideas from the whole team, instead of just from the usual boisterous, noisy three.

In the messy process of innovation there will be mistakes. Accepting this in theory is pretty easy, but what about confronting it in practice when the buck stops with you? What is the environment for reporting mistakes or problems? Usually, the boss finds out about trouble last—after everyone has done a sterling job to cover it up. The truth only emerges when the issue can’t be hidden anymore. Why is that?

A workplace recording many violations of procedure and one reporting few will be looked at differently. The location that has many incidents will seem to indicate a poor compliance environment (and by extension pathetic leadership).

But, in fact, it may be the other way around. The workplace reporting few incidents may be wizards at hiding bad stuff, while the one with many may be where mistakes are encouraged as part of the learning process.

Constantly encouraging ideas and experimentation, but also faithfully recording errors for root cause analysis as part of the creative process, could be seen as failure if the results are judged simply by the number of violation incidents. We need to look past the numbers to what type of environment the leader has created.

How we celebrate failure—where we draw the line between compliance and crazy, and how we deal with mistakes—is being very carefully observed by the whole team.

If there is an environment of trust, in which mistakes are accepted as part of the process of creative change and ideas are not critiqued as they emerge, then the team will feel safe to suggest their ideas. Leaders who can build this type of environment are treasures.

If you work in a blame culture with rapid retribution for failure, start praying your competitors haven’t figured out the balance needed between mistakes and innovation. If they have, in time they will win and you will lose.