Your Innovation Problem Is Really a Leadership Problem

New ideas do not grow on trees, but then again, neither do great leaders. As it turns out, the reason your organization might not be nurturing an orchard of innovation is because your leader has yet to plant the seeds. Scott Anthony of the Harvard Business Review drives that point home in a blog post inspired by the words of Karl Ronn, a former Procter & Gamble executive who said recently, “Companies that think they have an innovation problem don't have an innovation problem. They have a leadership problem.”

Anthony believes that lack of innovation within an organization is often a direct result of a corporate structure that has not been designed to foster it, and that blame lies with the leadership. One of many particular mistakes he finds is that companies offer too many point solutions to address systematic challenges, such as offering idea challenges or incentives for innovation. Although they can work, they will likely not work well enough in isolation. Anthony instead suggests a combination of four systems at a structural level that will help to foster innovation—a growth blueprint, production systems, governance and controls, and leadership, talent, and culture.

All the same, even with a functioning structure in place, it is still up to the leadership to guide the day-to-day workings in the right direction. To that end, Anthony challenges leaders to develop two distinct and simultaneous operating systems, one that minimizes mistakes and maximizes productivity today, and one that encourages experimentation and maximizes learning for tomorrow.

While this may all sound like advice that larger companies should already have internalized, the reality is that this is actually not often the case at all, and Anthony confronts this oddity head-on:

So what stops senior executives from rising to the innovation challenge? Leaders will typically highlight factors such as short-term pressures from investors, talent deficiencies, the challenge of implementing innovation-friendly rewards structures, the still fuzzy nature of innovation, and, in candid moments, their own discomfort with the different mental frames required to lead innovation.

When leaders convince themselves to shoot for the moon and create a structure and atmosphere that encourage their employees to dare with them, that is when innovation really begins. It might not always fall off the branches in droves, but the leadership and the employees alike will always be eager to take that next bite at the apple.

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