The Power of Paradox in Innovation

The Power of Paradox in Innovation

By Ralph Kerle

To say and to do, which one are you in your organization? And even if some say and some do, what do we need from a leader to successfully innovate in a company?

In the past decade, I have listened to many leaders across all sorts of industries and organizations talk about innovation, but very rarely have I seen organizations actually embody and live the outcomes of these discussions.

Though there is a euphoria and group think about the ideas discussed in workshops, that climax- that catalyst for change, quickly mitigates as employees shuffle back to their comfort zones of what they know, rather than planning and implementing the steps from these think tank meetings. Leaders attest to the many difficulties associated with innovation, not least of which are the political ramifications. Innovation is like a political movement, often polarizing entrenched hierarchies, organizational elites and factions. Innovation favors ideators and implementers, those wanting to overthrow the status quo and get on with change, challenging anybody who stands in their way.

Having tension is good, but how an organization proceeds is imperative to creating change and actually innovating.

I’ve noticed a trend within some larger organizations are starting to engage internal staff in something more than just dialogue about innovation. I can’t put my finger on what it is directly but for want of a better description I will call it innovation action.

Innovation action is beyond mere dialogue and seems to follow a rough pattern. A new department is formed, often within the HR, People and Learning or the Business Development areas with direct access to the very top of the organization. Members of this new department come from all sorts of backgrounds – communications, marketing, recruitment, IT, sales, accounting, procurement. Personally, they all seem to have common attributes – a passion for creativity, innovation and risk. Regularly the level of those involved is middle management and below; their age often below 40. We are on a mission, charged to innovate and transform this organization regardless, is their mantra.

I will be sharing two examples of innovation action to highlight the importance of how different senior leadership styles can either impede or facilitate this new empowered and passionate group of innovators.

Case Study #1

In the first example, the human resources department lead innovation, where the team allocated a lot of time to  research, consult and draw up a comprehensive strategic innovation plan including actions, timelines and outcomes. A creative conversation using a World Café process produced a tactical agenda focusing on the HR Department developing innovation capabilities and practices and trialling these practices within their own department before rolling them out across the entire organization. So that everyone was on board, the entire HR Department from the HR Director down to the Executive Assistant was drafted into a day’s workshop on design thinking and creative problem solving during which they were exposed to various tools and techniques that underline these innovation processes.

The HR leader in this organization is a rational, logical thinker driven by the need for conformity, process and outcome and as a result, is risk averse. He leads through examination of the minutiae, using the scientific method of asking his team to construct a hypothesis so that  he can find flaws to explore. As a result of this risk averse leadership style, innovation is a two step process  constructed first with an articulated vision. His first action subsequent to the workshop was to appoint somebody as the innovation co-ordinator, who assembled a team that created new hypotheses for  the leader himself to to approve and nominate. The ideas were then tested against the new tools and techniques introduced at the workshop.  

So, what happens next?

Three months later, the team, inexperienced in the tools and techniques, has lost enthusiasm. The staff most likely to innovate have various and differing views on how to proceed. They are unable to express their views about the leaders approved hypotheses openly and have become disengaged. The leader is frustrated because he has had no feedback from the group.

What went wrong?

The problem here is the leader thinks innovation can be achieved through simple idea generation and refinement. But innovation is a systemic organizational movement involving every aspect of the culture, its people and its operation.

Innovation, as a political movement for real transformation under his leadership, will only ever be tactical and incremental. Incremental innovation is not bad. It minimizes disruption and ensures the organization moves forward within its traditional constraints. However, it is only half of the political picture. It misses breakthrough thinking. The innovation action element built on imagination and risk is the key elements that enable entrepreneurship.

Albert Einstein has been quoted as saying “Logic will take you from A to Z. Imagination will take you everywhere!

Case Study #2

The second case study is a complete contrast in leadership styles and as a result, a contrast in outcomes.

Vice President, HR, Training and Development of one of Australia’s largest industry employers wanted an existing 18-month long graduate leadership programme redesigned to reflect the new number one core value of the organization – to be innovative – with the purpose of making innovation the main business enabler underscored by a long term market driven vision.

A new leadership and innovation program I designed introduced graduates to the concepts of strategic and tactical innovation using a real world business challenge of raising funds for charity. Initially, there was resistance confusion, and deliberate obfuscation from within the HR department as well as the Learning and OD Department. Some departmental managers responsible for these young graduates initially refused to allow them time to participate properly and complained bitterly to senior leaders.

Innovative Projects Need Leaders

To complicate matters, the organization’s mindset was to hire young science graduates, who developed ideas rather than implemented them. Understanding the circumstances, the Vice President had a vision for the new program. She was clear about delegating responsibilities to people, to be creative in both design and delivery to fulfil this vision. Additionally, for the content of the program, she empowered the design team to expand their ideas from outside of their comfort zone.  When internal staff began questioning or could not agree on how to proceed, she intuited this circumstance and  would call a meeting that every party or stakeholder involved attended. If one shareholder failed to attend, the meeting was rescheduled.

During the meeting, everyone was asked their opinion, but in the end, a final decision was made and everyone was made aware of the next steps to proceed. Her leadership style exemplified and embodied the chief characteristics of a creative leader – enlightenment, empowerment and engagement – the style needed to achieve strategic as opposed to incremental innovation. Importantly, this leader demonstrated how to hold competing agendas, to observe the movements in conflict, to empower specialists and thought leaders to proceed with the job despite an unclear vision. In other words, she recognized the paradoxical nature of the situation.

The net result over four months has been transformative. Through this process, the organization has seen the emergence of a group of young, highly motivated future leaders aligned to the new values of the organization.  This group  experienced real world entrepreneurial business skills and associated creative problem solving – something they wouldn’t get in their day to day tasks for some years. Importantly, they have experienced real world innovation in a social context that allowed them to feel good about themselves and their organization.

Like all transformations, there are ups and downs. On the down side, there has been a re-structuring of roles within the leadership program’s auspicing department, the HR Department.  Now, employees  who have shown they are comfortable with innovation are promoted into more senior roles rather than with those who wanted to retain the status quo moved to more operational and process driven roles.

These two case studies demonstrate the importance of the role of the creative leader in established organizations. The risk averse leader will offer incremental innovation – a risky strategy in the current dynamic multi-national global marketplace because it operates from a position of constraint. The truly creative leader offers the chance of organizational transformation and all its inherent risks and benefits. However, more importantly, a truly creative leader innately knows how to lead from the present while simultaneously holding a longer term, even 25 year, vision.

The Paradox of Innovation

It is this polarity of doing things as they have always done verses cultivating a new vision that seems self-contradictory or absurd to both employers and employees alike. In reality, this paradox expresses the possible truth that is the key to a permanent state of successful leadership and innovation in the 21st Century.

Goethe, the great 18th Century German dramatist best captured this when he wrote “Thinking is easy, acting is difficult, and to put one’s thoughts into action is the most difficult thing in the world…..”

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