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Differing Views on Innovation

Recent research shows a gap between leaders' view of their work in leading innovation and how employees view leadership's efforts in this area. Experts urge HR professionals to help managers break out of "decision-making mode," and coach them on encouraging original, innovative ideas from employees.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013
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Are the leaders within your company champions of innovation, frequently and enthusiastically encouraging employees to bring their most inspired and original business ideas to the table?

Of course they are -- just ask them. Put that question to your employees, however, and you may hear a different story.

Such are the findings of a recent study from Development Dimensions International, a Bridgeville, Pa.-based HR consulting firm. The study, which polled 513 leaders and 514 employees at U.S. companies, found 78 percent of leaders reporting they "demonstrate unwavering openness and appreciation for unique ideas and opinions."

Just 43 percent of the rank-and-file participants agreed with that assessment, though. Indeed, disparity was a recurring theme throughout the study report.

For example, 77 percent of leaders said they "urge employees to continually expand their understanding of business trends and emerging issues." Only 51 percent of employees said they felt the same way.

When asked if they "guide employees who fail or make mistakes to reframe the experience as learning opportunities," 77 percent of leaders said yes, while less than half (47 percent) of employees responded in the affirmative.

In addition, 42 percent of employees said they don't feel their leaders "champion the merits of employee-initiated ideas to senior management," in contrast to 75 percent of leaders who said they see themselves as advocates for employee ideas.

So, it seems employees and managers aren't seeing their organizations' efforts to innovate through the same lens. But why such drastically different views?

The discrepancy stems partly from a lack of time and money devoted to fostering an environment that encourages innovative ideas, says Elisa O'Donnell, vice president of innovation solutions at Imaginatik, a Boston-based innovation management consultancy and software provider.

"People at the senior level will say the organization is committed. But the reality in some cases is they either don't fund innovation or give people the necessary time [to cultivate ideas]," says O'Donnell. "They don't accept that part of the process around innovating is to take risks and fail."

"I've witnessed an interesting dynamic," she continues. "Leaders want to be in decision-making mode, as opposed to recognizing that ideas are fragile things. Teams are going to have an array of ideas, good and bad. The leader's role is to help employees navigate through the process and develop those ideas. What I think happens is, leaders say 'show me what you've done,' and that squelches employees' appetite to be innovative because they don't see their ideas being received well."

Leaders may, in some cases, fail to encourage innovation, but this shortcoming isn't necessarily borne out of bad intentions, says Dave Ulrich, professor at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan and a partner at the RBL Group, a Provo, Utah-based consulting firm.

"People judge themselves by their intent. Others judge them by their behaviors," says Ulrich. "Sometimes leaders fully intend to advocate for innovation, and their rhetoric may say so, but their actions are not visible to their employees. In addition, managers need to say things at least 10 times for every one time they are fully understood. Managers may be talking about innovation, but employees may not be hearing it without the subsequent actions."

So, what can HR do to help align managers' intentions with their actions, and in turn make employees feel their most creative and innovative ideas are welcome?

"HR professionals are architects who coach line managers to behave consistently with their intent, facilitate processes that drive innovation, and design and deliver HR practices that make innovation happen," says Ulrich. "When an innovation architecture exists, leaders act on it and HR practices reinforce it."

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HR leaders should also look at how leaders are selected and promoted within the organization, and place more of an emphasis on managers' mindsets regarding innovation, says Rich Wellins, senior vice president at DDI and a co-author of the report.

"We assess thousands of leaders a year, to form a basis for promotion and entry-level decisions for managers," he says. "One of the things we do is to map managers' competencies. And encouraging innovation is something that only a small subset [of managers] is really good at doing."

To better gauge or predict a manager's potential for encouraging innovation, "my first recommendation is that HR professionals should select and implement a formal assessment process to get feedback on a potential leader's likelihood of creating an environment for sustainable innovation."

HR should also look at how managers' conduct and receptiveness to new ideas affect their teams' ability to innovate, and provide learning and development opportunities that nurture the right behaviors, he continues.

"There are leadership behaviors that can be learned and developed, such as encouraging risk-taking and reaching out to establish stronger internal and professional networks that would tend to help leaders be 'innovation climate creators' rather than destroyers. Inadvertently, leaders often use behaviors that destroy employees' motivation to innovate. Through development and feedback, these behavior patterns can be changed."

In a larger sense, HR can help shape a corporate culture that fosters innovation "by creating four agendas," says Ulrich.

"One is an intellectual agenda where innovation is consistently and clearly talked about and understood. Second is a behavioral agenda where innovation ideas translate to employee actions, along with a process agenda where the HR processes create and sustain innovation, and a leadership agenda where the leader's DNA both discovers and delivers new ideas."

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