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Are we too busy to innovate?

Managers and Leaders can make or break an organisation’s efforts to generate fresh ideas and evolve.

Innovation and creative thinking are common management buzz words that managers and leaders hear every day. To some, these words are frightening – the fear of the unknown – and yet to others these same words are embraced as opportunity. Innovation is defined as the ‘successful exploitation of ideas’ as opposed to creative thinking which is usually required at the front end of the innovation process.

Research from organisations around the world has shown that the single most important factor in the success of innovation and developing creative initiatives is having a leader and a team with the ability and passion to turn ideas into business reality.  Additionally, a leader must provide focus and ensure their people have a clear understanding of exactly what kind of innovation the business requires.

All too often innovation is viewed as ground breaking technological advances such as robots being responsible for putting half the Australian workforce out of a job – and of course these types of statements dominate media headlines. This kind of innovation scares people – as many commentators identified during the 2016 federal election campaign when former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull kept reminding the voters about innovation and economic change (to his detriment).

Rather, innovation should be focused on small, incremental changes to products, processes, services and customer experiences that assist organisations to become more efficient, productive and competitive. Creative thinking is helpful during this process to identify new ideas.

Surprisingly, among today’s managers and leaders the most common competency area of weakness resides in the development of creative and innovative thinking.  This ‘blind spot’ area has been identified by the IML 360 assessment
tool and is diagnosed in hundreds of
IML Corporate Member organisations around Australia.

Managers play a crucial role in sparking and encouraging innovation and creative thinking and their support and openness to ideas is vitally important. Research from NESTA in the UK found that 40 per cent of organisational innovation comes from the role of leaders in ‘modelling behaviours that encourage innovation’. Another 30 per cent is delivered by setting up the right team and having a talent pool motivated by innovation and incentivised to improve business operations.

It’s a well-known fact that the development of the iPod was a team effort; inspired and spearheaded by Apple CEO Steve Jobs and created and assembled by a team of engineers and designers – through hundreds of iterations and modifications. All good ideas are born flawed.

Barriers to innovation can usually be characterised into three distinct categories – risk aversion and fear of failure by leaders, hierarchical structure across staff levels, and lack of time to reflect on business processes. Notably, public sector managers highlight the first two categories as their biggest barriers to overcome (62%) while private sector managers suggest the third category is the biggest factor for reducing innovative outcomes (52%).

Of course, there’s always a lot of talk from government, CEOs and executive teams about the need for creative thinking and the requirement to cultivate a culture of innovation – but more often than not it simply doesn’t translate into action on the ground. Creating a culture where people feel safe to experiment with new concepts, are willing to share opinions and are empowered to frame new ideas is wonderful to preach from the ivory tower, but it must be followed up with action to eliminate barriers.

Further assessment results from IML’s small-to-medium sized Corporate Members suggest that insufficient or ‘distracted’ talent remains a major challenge to cultivate such cultures. This was confirmed by an interesting observation made from one organisation. A senior leader noted that employees in her organisation no longer have or make the time to reflect on improving business processes. Constant distractions such as social media, a 24-hour news cycle, access to everything on our phones and PCs and other ‘lifestyle’ commitments mean that all too often we no longer have the time to reflect and truly think about how processes can be improved. In other words, life is simply too busy to think creatively and innovate.

So, what are we to do as managers and leaders? For a team to innovate, a manager needs to ensure they have a number of team members who are innovators.

To identify the innovators inside a team, managers and leaders should look to identify people with three key characteristics:

  1. People who are open to ideas;
  2. Those who show problem-solving skills; and
  3. Employees who are highly motivated and use initiative.

Some of these skills can be taught through training, professional development and experience. Much of it is also achieved by the organisation’s leadership capacity and culture.

Research suggests leaders should adopt a transformational leadership style that is more inspiring and collaborative to generate a shared vision among employees. In a practical sense, many of the barriers to innovation and creative thinking are expressed through the limitations of a hierarchical organisation structure.

By Sam Bell FIML

IML’s general manager – corporate services and research

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