Innovation has been on a roller coaster ride; five years ago, “innovation” was a very popular business buzzword and riding the wave of popularity. However, with the impact of the financial crisis, organisations switched their focus to survival, rather than trying to do new things to keep growing. Innovation was not as embedded as perhaps thought.

With the crisis potentially weathered, corporations have realised that these tough conditions are the “new normal”; they cannot hope for better times – this is it. This “new world” keeps changing at a faster and faster pace and no longer values experience; executives no longer have the “answers” that they once did and were exalted for. As a result, “innovation” is having a resurgence in the boardroom, as executives nervously seek new ways of making best use of their scarce resources, in the hope of finding better strategies to cope in the “new world” they have found themselves in.

The best leaders in the new world are not those that think they know all answers or rely on their experience. Experience is no longer valuable or useful in this “new world”, as it applies to the old world, which no longer exists. Situations now change too fast and do not follow the well-worn paths of yesteryear; predictions are extremely hard. It is like having a street map that is 50 years old. The old map does not have all the new streets, oh, and by the way, everyone else seems to be using a sat nav (GPS).

The “old world” map

The leaders that will be successful understand both their strengths and their weaknesses. They know what they can do and what they cannot; they ensure that they have someone in their team who can. They are, in effect, acting as conductors; they direct who should play when and at what volume. The skills that leaders display in “conducting” determine whether their organisation plays a concerto or something much less harmonious! These leaders are experts at bringing direction, but allow the team to play their parts without interference; they let the experts practice their expertise.

In this new world, the answers to an organisation’s problems no longer come from just the top person or top team. The leader that can swallow his or her pride and ego, accept that they do not know it all, and ask their people for ideas will be the successful one. Those at the top must listen to those at the front-line, as they are the ones who are interacting and know what customers want and, more importantly, what they need. The lines of communication between all levels must be open and fast flowing conduits.

A leader needs to act as a conductor

The key leadership skill is to create the culture where innovation is not just valued by everyone, but expected. The leader must encourage differential thinking and celebrate those that put themselves forward through thinking in a new way.

The mistake that many make at this stage is expecting everyone to have ideas. Having an idea is only the starting point. Ideas must be implemented to make any difference, which is where you need all the associated skills to bring an idea to life. (For an overview of roles in innovation, Tom Kelley provides a great list in “The Ten Faces of Innovation”.) An innovative organisation understands the necessity for implementation and all pull in the same direction to make it happen. Corporately, they behave innovatively to bring about innovation that creates and sustains business value.

So what is the leader doing in all this? They are setting direction and being decisive, championing people and listening to their ideas, and most importantly, making the space for people to explore better ways. Exploring does not always lead to successful outcomes, so allowance for failure must be provided. If exploration is discouraged, then all you have left is exploiting current resources, which are always finite, and this story does not end well! However, when (not if) failure does occur, fail quick, learn the lessons and move on to the next exploration.

The successful leader in the fast moving “new world” has learnt that they must harness the creative power of their whole organisation to obtain or maintain success. It is only through this creative partnership that the organisation will have a lasting future.

Acknowledgement: Inspiration for this post came from “New World Thinking” by Professor Eddie Obeng; see his TED talk for the most words (and jokes) into ten minutes that I have seen for sometime! Eddie Obeng TED Talk