Leaders: Conduct innovative conversations

Innovation is both formal and informal.

Leaders can build sophisticated and extensive product innovation pipelines for example, but that is never enough. From my research, most creativity emerges from the many spontaneous interactions that occur throughout an organisation.

As Steve Jobs notes, “Innovation is fostered by ad-hoc meetings of six people called by someone who thinks he has figured out the coolest new thing ever and wants to know what other people think of his idea.’

Note the emphasis (in this quote) on “ad-hoc” rather than a formal meeting. Also notice the openness of the generator of the idea to others feedback. This for me is the essence of an innovative organisation.

Innovation requires a steady stream of big, new ideas and people being receptive to these ideas. One without the other is a recipe for failure. If there is openness but no breakthrough ideas then this leads to incremental achievement. If there is bold thinking but a closing of minds then this eventually leads to frustration.

Yet it is my experience that most leaders are ill equipped in facilitating creative or innovation conversations. Leaders are too quick to offer a critical view of what is wrong with an idea and to subjectively dismiss it without due consideration.

Ideas are never borne perfect.

They need time and space to flourish and grow. Hence, leaders need to learn how to explore the potential of an idea rather than analyse the life out of it.

 

The good news is that idea – receptivity is a skill that can be learnt and with the right tools can be improved. Here are three of my favourites:

“Yes and” rather than “Yes but”

This simple tool encourages leaders to add something to an idea before they announce what is not working, eg. this might work but it is too expensive is one approach. Another (better) one is to say, this might work as it is and if we offered a low-cost version then it might be even more successful.

What I find interesting about this idea is…

This tool asks leaders to uncover what is interesting about an idea or what is surprising or what might be different, etc.

This is a neutral exploration of an idea rather than falling straight away into a good or bad, “either or” judgement.

The essence of the idea is…

With this approach the person receiving the idea tries to clarify the essence of the idea. Sometimes when a leader rejects an idea it is because they do not like the execution of the idea rather than the core idea, eg. the essence of an idea may be to reward customers by sending them around the world (ie. the execution). This may be too expensive but a trip around Australia may be within the budget (ie. the same core idea but a different execution).

For many leaders in my PhD research on creative organisations, idea receptiveness is how they defined a creative culture. There is a growing awareness that even if an organisation is good at developing ideas it does not necessarily follow that it is open and receptive to ideas.

A culture of idea receptivity also implies that ideas can be openly discussed, challenged and enhanced regardless of the source of the idea. The idea is the hero, not the person.

The concept of a creative environment being both productive and receptive to ideas suggests a symbiotic relationship. If people know that an environment is open to ideas, they are more likely to develop and present a range of different and radical ideas. If these ideas are well received they might be encouraged to push their ideas further and so a positive cycle is created.

In the advertising industry, for example, creativity is greatly influenced by the client’s openness and receptivity to new ideas. While this was acknowledged by agencies they tended to concentrate on producing better advertising ideas and the need to sell the ideas harder. They rarely mentioned strategies to enhance the receptiveness of the client to these new ideas.

In short, innovation emerges from the sum total of a thousand creative conversations. Having more creative conversations means that the likelihood of developing a breakthrough product or service is enhanced.

So the next time you want to constructively criticize a new idea pause for a moment and find what is surprising about it or try and/or add something new to the mix. You will be love the result.

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