Managers drive innovation from the heart.
- Posted by Cris Beswick
- On 15/09/2022
This is a piece about and for managers. They could be line managers, middle managers, or team leaders; in a way, the title is immaterial. But in any organisation, these individuals sit at its heart, interpreting the vision, delivering the strategy, and ensuring that the engine runs smoothly, and the business stays on track.
You might think that’s the job of the executives. But whilst the executive team can strategize and lead, they are rarely in touch with the day-to-day challenges, the people, or the customers. Don’t get me wrong; without executive sponsorship and ownership, without the C-suite living the changes they want to see in the organisation, change rarely happens. But to truly deliver change, you need managers’ enthusiasm, engagement, and drive across the organisation’s middle.
It’s a point I thought came across very clearly in an article by Benham Tabrizi for Harvard Business Review.  In his article, he cited several instances in which the intervention of managers led to a complete overhaul of innovation efforts within an organisation. Those managers were prepared to stand up and ‘tell it like it is.’ In the process, energising the organisation into getting behind the innovation agenda.
Those managers also had one thing in common; they knew first-hand what was happening daily. One of the most powerful messages I try to convey to any organisation thinking of Building a Culture of Innovation is that it is vital to know your starting point. Far too many transformation programs are doomed to failure even before they begin because the executive team doesn’t know their current innovation capability and maturity level. I tend to use an analogy of a sat nav or GPS system. If you can’t pinpoint your starting position or origin, it’s impossible to create a route to your desired destination accurately. Similarly, if the satellite signal is weak, you’ll get an endless series of ‘recalculating’ messages, resulting in slow, frustrating, and costly progress.
Managers, far more than executives, have a much closer idea of the starting point. In general, they are much more aware of the bottlenecks, the wastage, the grumbles, and the frustration of their people. However, depending on the organisational structure or, in my experience, the leadership style and approach, they may feel powerless to do anything, resulting in the classic ‘frozen-middle’ scenario! So, it’s fundamental that executives play their part, creating the conditions which empower their managers to act and to feel free to stand up, be counted and drive innovation on a day-to-day basis.
My next article will cover that executive/managerial dynamic in depth. And will outline our work on coaching leaders to ‘OWN’ the innovation agenda and how that enables middle-managers to ‘DRIVE’ the innovation agenda on a day-to-day basis. In the meantime, let’s explore how executives might be able to leverage the knowledge sitting in their organisational layers. In my experience, I’ve seen too many executives dive straight into direct interrogation, which sometimes seems like a good idea at the time but usually turns into a quasi-blame game, not something you want when looking to your managers to help shape the future.
So how do you work out your starting point? How do you leverage the knowledge across your organisation to create an unbiased, objective roadmap for transformation? This is where The Assessment for Innovation Maturity , or ‘AIM’ for short, comes into its own. Specifically designed to provide leaders with an overview of the current state of innovation capability and culture, AIM drills down into Strategy, Leadership, Management, Culture, and Processes, otherwise known as the five pillars of innovation maturity. By inviting employees from across the organisation to answer a pragmatic and secure online assessment, leaders can develop an in-depth overview of their organisation’s current level of innovation maturity. Leaders can then use the data to create a set of interventions to target the specific innovation blockers identified and the areas with the most significant potential for innovation-led change.
For leaders considering building a culture of innovation who want an idea of the likely level of innovation maturity in their organisation, we have also introduced AIM Individual , designed to provide a one-person viewpoint of the likely level of innovation maturity. However, it’s important to note that this is a narrow viewpoint and although it relies on the individual answering how they think the organisation would answer, it’s no substitute for the organisational-wide view. Also, by relying solely on AIM Individual, you could be missing out on two potential benefits of undertaking a broader assessment. By inviting all your people to take AIM, you create genuine fidelity on the actual state of innovation capability in your organisation, helping leaders make genuine ‘data-drive’ decisions on the investment in innovation. But you also show that you value the contribution of your people, helping them not only to engage with the subsequent change but also to feel more able to contribute ideas openly—a fundamental part of the psychological safety required for innovation.
And the more your managers engage, the greater the chance of building the holy grail, a culture of innovation. I’ll leave you with one thought. Highlighting that most change programmes fail, Benham Tabrizi commented in his article:
“A hallmark of the successful 32% was the involvement of mid-level managers two or more levels below the CEO. In those cases, mid-level managers weren’t merely managing incremental change; they were leading it by working levers of power up, across and down in their organisations.”
This supports my experience of working with leadership teams around the world that innovation-led transformation is rarely top down, or bottom-up, but middle-out!