The Leadership Imperative to Facilitate Innovation and Design Thinking


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In a recent blog post I discussed the virtues of Design Thinking as a framework to facilitate the creation of innovative marketing and communication strategies.

In this post, I offer thoughts on what leaders need to do to create a culture where innovation and design thinking can actually thrive.

Lessons from Harvard Business Review.

In an article published in the December 2009 issue of the Harvard Business Review entitled “The Innovators DNA" authors Jeffrey H. Dyer, Hal B. Gregerson, and Clayton M. Christensen discuss the characteristics of leadership that drive innovation cultures within organizations.  The article is the result of a six-year study to uncover the origins of creative – and often disruptive – business strategies in innovative companies.

The authors discovered that the best leaders in many organizations are not the genius behind ground breaking innovations.  Rather they are the curators of ideas and design and are the facilitators of collaboration that often lead to great innovations.

The ability to innovate is the secret sauce of business success. 

Companies that embody the spirit of innovation through design will lead and win in the market.  Companies like Apple, Amazon, and Proctor & Gamble are great examples of companies that are leading and transforming the competitive landscape of their respective markets based (in large part) by the culture of innovation that runs through their DNA.

In an effort to isolate the characteristics of innovative leaders the authors of the HBR article identifed the following fundamental characteristics and skills that leaders must posess.

Skills:  Innovative leaders have a keen ability to associate and gather insight based on experiences and observation.  They look for patterns in behaviors, actions, beliefs and process and drive creativity through ‘connecting’ people, ideas, activities, and processes together.

Questioning:  The importance of asking provocative questions is fundamental to good leadership. The great Peter Druker identified that the job of a leader is not to find the right answers, rather to identify the right questions or question the unquestionable.  Good leaders ask why, why not and what if as a basis to stimulate thought and brainstorming.

Companies like Better Place, and Dell famously started when the founders were confronted with very provocative questions that led to the creation of companies that have redefined the landscape of their respective markets (by way of new business models, products and services).

Embrace constraints:  Creativity loves constraints. Good leaders pursue a noble purpose in a forward looking manner.  They don't fixate on just the problems of the past or the issues of the day.  Rather they look for the possibilities in the future.

Observation: Anthropological skills are great to have when approaching design thinking and innovation.  It is critical to not pass judgment on what you see.  Rather learn through the observation of behaviors and find interesting ‘patterns’ that might expose new opportunities.

Innovative leaders have the ability to harnesses both creative and analytical thinking by learning through failure and observation.

Experimentation: Good leaders have the ability to construct solutions by deconstructing problems and issues. They look for and encourage their teams to find new ways to solve common problems. In times of scarcity this is even more important where constraint of time, budget, and people are often an inhibitor for leaders to look beyond the challenges of the day.  You must make time to think and experiment.

Networking:  Leaders gain perspective through engaging and encouraging their teams to engage with people who have different ideas, perspectives, and experiences.  Conferences like Ted are famous for bringing together great minds from different walks of life (artists, business executives, entertainers, technologists, scientists, academia, etc.) together under one roof to share ideas and creativity that often lead to new innovations. It is important to seek out conferences, groups, books, blogs, etc. that stimulate ideas, creativity and thought.

Practice:  Good leaders practice the behaviors above and encourage others around them to do the same.  Above all, the most important skill that the authors of the HBR article identified is to practice questioning.

Innovators must act different to think different.

The disruption that many businesses face today as a result of the convergence of technology, process and people – connected by social media – is powerful.  By strengthening individual leadership and creating cultures of creativity within the organization (based on the above characteristics) and applying the principles of design thinking – leaders can facilitate innovation in organizational design, products, business models and services – that can be game changing.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Don Bulmer
Royal Dutch Shell
Don Bulmer is Vice President of Communication Strategy at Royal Dutch Shell.


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