Innovation is the lifeblood of success. Companies that can adapt, embrace change, and foster creativity are the ones poised to thrive. Yet, amidst the demands of day-to-day operations, many organizations find themselves stuck in a cycle of routine, clinging to familiar practices, and as a result struggling to break free from the shackles of repetition. So, why do some leaders, despite voicing support for innovation, shy away from it in practice?
This phenomenon is not limited to the entry-level or the executive boardroom but often strikes hardest in the realm of mid-level management. These managers are the bridge between the strategic vision of top leadership and the execution of plans on the front lines. They are entrusted with the responsibility of not only maintaining the status quo but also driving innovation and improvement.
Let’s take Laura for instance. She’s a mid-level manager at a Fortune 100 biopharmaceutical company who repeatedly expressed her desire to see “out-of-the-box” thinking from her team in order to get faster, higher-quality service for the patients who rely on their drugs. Yet every week, her schedule and the schedule of the team are filled to the brim with back-to-back meetings, leaving no time to nurture or evaluate creative ideas. The one brainstorming session she organized last month was a rushed 30-minute virtual call on a Friday amidst an already hectic day interspersed with urgent emails and calls.
You guessed it: ideas were safe, familiar, and anything but innovative.
The Battle Against Repetition
Leaders like Laura, often unknowingly, lead teams that become world champions of acting like we did yesterday.
In the realm of work, this means adhering to practices because "that's how it's always been done." It's churning out reports in the same format, holding meetings without clear agendas, and avoiding any method or idea that deviates from the norm. There’s an implicit safety in repetition; it’s familiar, predictable, and rarely gets questioned.
But herein lies the paradox: by seeking refuge in the known, we shut out the innovative and the new, stunting potential growth.
Understanding Reluctance Towards Creativity
So, why do some leaders, despite voicing support for innovation, shy away from it in practice?
- Risk-Aversion: Creative ideas are, by nature, untested. This makes them risky. Many leaders fear the repercussions of a novel idea failing, especially in front of senior leaders or in front of the team.
- Time Constraints: True creativity isn't instant. It requires time – for thought, discussion, and even disagreement. The daily hustle, especially for mid-level managers juggling multiple tasks of the needs of the team and needing to do their own work, makes it tough to carve out this space, particularly with the pressures of your day-to-day telling you that "you don't have time for this".
- Misunderstanding Creativity: Some might believe creativity is only about 'big ideas' and grand innovations. They overlook the smaller, incremental changes (what’s sometimes called ‘little c’ creativity) that can lead to substantial long-term benefits.
- Resisting Change: It's human nature to resist change, especially when current systems seem to be working "good enough.
Questions to Guide Creative Thought
For managers looking to harness the power of creativity within their teams, reflecting on these guiding questions can be transformative:
- Re-Visit Assumptions: "Why do we do it this way?" Challenge the status quo. Reassess ingrained practices to see if they still serve your team's goals.
- Establish the Ultimate Aim: “What are we ultimately trying to accomplish?” Clarify the endgame. Understand the core objectives to ensure that innovation aligns with the bigger picture. You can use a tactic like the “5 Why's” to really get at the source of the issue and to ensure you’re solving the right problem.
- Brainstorm Freely: “What do we think can solve this?” This is not the time for negativity (that comes later). Encourage an open platform for ideas where No's, But's, or “We already tried that” are momentarily set aside.
- Synergize Ideas: “Where can these ideas combine to find the best solution?” Once ideas are on the table, look for intersections where combining them could lead to more effective outcomes. This is sometimes known as looking for the “1+1=3” ideas.
- Prevent Overthinking: “What if we only had 30 days? What if this were easy?” Imposing constraints can often lead to more ingenious solutions.
- Identify Potential Hurdles: “What would prevent this from happening? What could go wrong?” Recognizing challenges upfront, potentially through Red Team exercises and frame changes, allows for better planning and resource allocation.
- Strategizing Solutions: “How can we overcome these barriers? What resources are needed?” Convert challenges into actionable steps.
- Action and Commitment: “Who is doing what by when? How will we know we've succeeded?” Define responsibilities and success metrics to track progress through written action plans.
Embracing creativity isn't about discarding everything you know. It's about allowing space for new possibilities. For mid-level managers like Laura, the challenge is twofold: finding the time amidst the chaos and having the courage to venture into the unknown.
To all such leaders: Take a step today. Dedicate just an hour this week, free from distractions, to brainstorm with your team. Utilize the guiding questions above. Listen, truly listen, to their ideas. Perhaps, in that hour, you might find the seed of the next big innovation for your organization.
You're all set, we'll be in touch soon.