Here is text of the interview:
1. Why is innovation so important for organizations?
In today’s era of global suppliers and Internet-empowered buyers, companies’ products are under constant pricing pressure. As margins become squeezed, companies must innovate to improve efficiencies and develop higher value products and services.
2. When it comes to selling change, what is the biggest challenge that you see organizations facing?
Often, the biggest challenge in organizations is their performance review systems. In the attempt to create objective review systems, rewards and punishments are determined by the achievement of specific, measurable management objectives. Employees measure their every activity by the degree of alignment with the metric. At first glance it would seem this is the desired result. But, optimizing the business for a specific metric often conflicts with the broader context of growing a robust, healthy business; essentially sacrificing other aspects of the business to show high attainment against a specific metric. Optimizing for a specific metric discourages innovation and change by discouraging any non-optimizing activities. Organizations that want improve efficiencies and deliver higher value may need to reevaluate their performance review systems.
3. What are some of the best strategies for getting buy-in to a change or innovation effort?
People only change when they feel a force that compels them to take action. Regardless of how much you wish you were that compelling force, you are not. So, the most important task in getting buy-in is to understand the forces that people feel; that is, the forces that are influencing their behavior. Building on Kurt Lewin’s notion of internal and environmental forces, I put these forces into four categories:
- The person’s own internal needs that he or she is striving to fulfill
- The person’s behavioral tendencies, or personality traits
- The strategies the person intentionally uses to manage his or her behavior
- Environmental forces outside of the person’s direct control
The Four Forces model applies equally to individual people or organizations. For example, organizations employ performance management systems, which function as a cognitive strategy to guide the organization’s behavior. “Buy-in” to an innovation or change initiative occurs when people conclude that, within the context of the forces they are feeling, the initiative is compelling. Therefore, by understanding the forces people are feeling, leaders will be better able to create compelling cases for change.
4. What is the most important culture change for organizations to make in order to support innovation?
The most important culture change is to reward risk taking. Every large success in business is the result of a significant change or innovation that involved substantial short-term and long-term risk. Yet, most managers are rewarded on short-term business performance. The adage, “What have you done for me today?” illustrates the common trap of focusing on a) activities rather than results and b) short-term vs. long-term performance. Measuring and optimizing risk taking is a difficult challenge, to say the least. The first step is to train employees in the principals of risk management. Years ago, when many companies were sending all personnel through total quality management training, the results were transformative. Similarly, by creating a common language and ethos related to risk taking, organizations can dramatically improve their rate of successful innovation.
5. What skills do you believe that managers need to acquire to succeed in an innovation-led organization?
In my book, The Six Characteristics of Highly Successful Change Leaders, I describe the six personality characteristics that are essential for driving change and innovation: a low level of anxiety, a high level of emotional stability, a high level of confidence, an openness to new perspectives, an action orientation, and a balanced risk tolerance. While these are personality traits rather than skills, we all have the ability to influence them. For example, since anxieties tend to impede performance, as managers, we do not want to create or exacerbate anxieties for our staff. In 2009 France Telecom reportedly announced to its employees that tens of thousands of them would be laid off over the next 2 years, but didn’t say who or when they would be laid off. The anxiety created by the presence of a figurative guillotine over employees’ heads, among other complaints, was so great that some 23 employees committed suicide. While this is an extreme example, it serves to illustrate the impact of anxiety on human performance. Similarly, each of the other five characteristics can be systemically reinforced or diminished by management actions and policies. Finally, as individuals, we must take ownership for our own development, constantly taking actions that develop these characteristics.
6. If you were to change one thing about our educational system to better prepare students to contribute in the innovation workforce of tomorrow, what would it be?
One of the six characteristics of highly effective change leaders is “openness.” People and organizations that are constantly learning, innovating, and changing, must be open to new ideas and new perspectives. One theory of human behavior holds that openness is a personality trait over which people have little control. Some people inherently are more open than others. However, many psychologists also agree that behavioral characteristics can be greatly influenced through nurturing. Many aspects of openness, which includes the awareness of multiple perspectives, the ability to listen to new information, and attention to process rather than preconceived outcomes, can be nurtured and taught with great success. For instance, the local school district in which I live has an enrichment program whereby students spend one day a week learning these skills. In today’s environment of constant discussions related to education reform, we need to take care to preserve and expand programs that nurture these critical skills.
I’d like to share a video interview I did with Brett recently about innovation and change and more:
Braden Kelley is the author of Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire from John Wiley & Sons. Braden is also the editor of Blogging Innovation and founder of Business Strategy Innovation, a consultancy focusing on innovation and marketing strategy.