A few days back, I came across an article on Forbes magazine about the secret of super-effective employees. The article got me thinking about the people involved in innovation as it begins with a story about a climbing vine called wisteria. There many types of this vine but the Chinese wisteria is known to twine counterclockwise while the Japanese one twines up clockwise.
If you were to try and train both vines to twine up in the same direction, chances are you would succeed with one and fail with the other. The article then goes to say that it is the same with people. Each individual grows differently according to the conditions.
You probably have realised already that majority of organisations — despite this story — treat everyone exactly the same way, expecting the same kinds of results and direction. But just as with the wisteria, the results may not be as you expect when you treat people all the same.
That said, I’d like to touch on an element of innovation that applies the wisteria story, and that involves the leadership that drives innovation.
You have often heard me say that when it comes to business leaders, there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all style of leadership. Just as you cannot force some wisteria vines to grow in a certain way, if you lead your people with a single style, you cannot expect them all to follow the same direction.
In the same way, there is no one perfect way to drive innovation. Some people may approach innovation in one way while others may prefer a different approach.
So how should you support your people in order to achieve the most effective results on your organisation’s journey towards innovation?
First and foremost, be aware. As a business leader, be aware that people in your organisation are different and learn to recognise what it is that makes them different.
When you handle hundreds or thousands of people, it is easy to overlook their individuality and there’s a temptation to control them in a single way. It’s easier, definitely — but do not expect the same results and high levels of productivity.
Second, understand what motivates and drives your people. Also, understand what demotivates and discourages them. You may say that it is nearly impossible when I say that you must understand each and every individual in your organisation.
This is why you must understand the concept of individuality. This means that, even if you don’t understand every single one of them, you must keep an open mind and respect them.
This is especially crucial in innovation where creativity is encouraged. You cannot assume everyone in your organisation can be creative if you attempt to control them all in the same way.
Third, clarify the organisation’s vision and goals for your people to achieve. Rather than dictating exactly how to perform certain tasks, give them a clear goal in mind to work towards. Whichever direction or approach they choose to take, they will know what they are aiming for.
And when it comes to innovating, it works the same way. When you and your people have a defined problem to tackle, no matter the approach, they will always have that problem statement as their focus.
Fourth, nurture a culture in which your people start to treat others as unique individuals. As their leader, you’ll have to lead by example. It is not enough that you alone are aware and have understood the individuality of your people. People in your organisation should also treat each other with this in mind.
Fifth, empower your people to push beyond the status quo. They may be easily swayed by the appeal of routine and familiarity but the fact is, no business or innovation grows from comfort. Instead, support your people to take risks.
Returning to the wisteria story, people have different approaches to risk, so it is important to understand not to push them too much. And just because a few of your people are not huge risk-takers, it doesn’t mean there is no potential of expanding their comfort zone when it comes to risk.
At the end of the day, there is no perfect how-to for innovation, nor is there a perfect mould for your people. People are different and have different approaches to work and innovation. It is important to keep in mind that you must drive your people and treat them as individuals with the potential to drive innovation.
Arinya Talerngsri is Chief Capability Officer and Managing Director at SEAC (formerly APMGroup) Southeast Asia’s leading executive, leadership and innovation capability development centre. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.linkedin.com/in/arinya-talerngsri-53b81aa
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