The new leadership challenge: create a context in which others can innovate

the number one limiting belief of leadersConventional leadership won’t get you innovation. How so?

A myth that is commonly associated with innovators like Steve Jobs is that their respective companies achieved extraordinary success because of them. Wrong. Steve Jobs didn’t do everything himself, he’s even said so publicly that “ideas trump hierarchy” at Apple.

What’s less understood, and talked about, is what he did do to build a relentless innovator until he was long gone. Fundamentally, he set forth a set of behaviors and practices that together form the context for great ideas to happen, and then make sure to challenge people to make them even better. This isn’t what conventional leadership looks like; but it’s what leadership looks like at innovative organizations.

A key trait all innovative organizations have in common is that ideas come from everywhere; not just the top. It’s open door policy taken to the extreme where ideas can come from any corner of the organization no matter your position, experience or seniority; everyone has a voice.

Many voices are heard, many voices matter

If you’ve been following the NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers then you are aware that the Warriors changed their lineup quite a bit for Game #4 when they decided to play with no traditional center and thus go small. A move that didn’t seem to make sense for the first 4 minutes of the game but set the stage for the remainder of the game; which they won.

The idea to go “small” didn’t originate in the mind of the team’s Head Coach, it came from a guy who ‘s job is to sets the music playlist when players are training. This option, to play small without a true center to accelerate the pace of the game (which suits the Warriors), would never had happened if the Head Coach didn’t create a culture where ideas come from everywhere:

“It was his decision,” Walton said. “It’s always his decision. But this is why he’s the greatest boss in the world. We can all make suggestions, even a video guy, and he’ll seriously consider them.” On Thursday, a de facto video guy might have saved the season. When reporters asked Kerr about a change at shootaround, he lied, and when they asked him before the game, he lied again. “Sorry about that,” he said afterward, “but I don’t think they hand you the trophy based on morality.”

Though this is a basketball example, it very much applies to the world of business. You see, innovation in today’s business world is increasingly coming from collaborative teams, rather than the sole champion innovator. Great ideas can come from anywhere in a company, and fostering an environment in which anyone can innovate is an important part of a high-performance culture.

This is the leadership style that drives innovation in any type of organization; ignore it at your own peril.

Bottom line: While there are many tactics leaders can use to drive innovation in their organizations, the one that has the biggest impact (and is the mark of innovative leadership) is to develop a culture that values everyone’s voice. The leadership challenge for you then is to create the context for great ideas to happen.