“Why are we okay that management hasn’t seen innovation in a 100…years, but we demand innovation in every other aspect of our lives?” Jamie Notter
As we glance around the globe, things sure look rough. Just look at the USA. Our economy appears stalled. Unemployment and underemployment are high and middle-class jobs are evaporating. As Americans, we have always promoted innovation, a solid educational system, functional patent laws, and an eco-system that provided incentives for innovation.
This issue that has been stuck in my mind for weeks: Before we can truly innovate, we really need to socially innovate.
It appears innovation has stalled. We continue to make incremental innovation, but I have to believe there is greater innovation to be had. Could it be our massively bureaucratic system is at fault? I understand there are entrepreneurs that decide, create, build, and design their future every day, but what about the majority of us? Ponder our education system—a massive bureaucracy that stifles innovation (see Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talk). Think about most of our big businesses, and our federal, state, and local government and all the various services—to include our military and defense industry—innovation has STALLED!
Reignite Innovation: Social Innovation
Innovation calls for problem-solving abilities and critical thinking. Innovators often need to collaborate across disciplinary boundaries. As discussed at the Mastermind Century Group, we are currently living in an era of crisis, complexity, and confusion (C3), and the only real way to navigate through it is with communication, collaboration, and creative thinking (3Cs) or simply put—innovation.
While we push at becoming more “innovative”, it is important that leadership changes as well. Administrators, not leaders, often set the tone for their organization, business, or division. If these administrators and managers lead in a status quo manner, things are not going to change in the organization. Leaders need not only to “think” differently, but also to “act” differently.
This is where organizations must understand the need for their own social innovation.
Social innovation is basically the process of securing support for and implementing novel solutions to social needs and problems. A social need (or a social problem or a social illness) refers to an issue that influences and is opposed by a considerable number of individuals within a society. It is often the consequence of factors extending beyond an individual’s control and local geographical environment.
Social innovators are therefore focusing on and solving intractable issues including hunger, poverty, human trafficking, rights violations, disease, political corruption, and environmental destruction. But, social innovation is more than activism, equality, justice, and ending poverty. Social innovation demands vision, focus, mission, drive, and passion. The key to innovation, and more particularly social innovation, lies in leadership. Further, a lack of leadership is indeed a social illness demanding social innovation.
Social innovators tend to come from a liberal arts tradition as opposed to a stereotypical innovators who routinely hail from a more scientific background. Social innovators seek to fight injustice and improve the world. Social innovation can change how a culture functions, and therein lies the requirement for social innovation in a large organization or bureaucracy prior to truly creating a culture of innovation. Social innovators idealistically seek to “make change”.
If social innovation supports the development, implementation, and sustainability of transformational responses to social needs, can’t we see leadership as it pertains to innovation as something in dire need of change and social innovation?
Leaders, Bureaucracy, and Innovation
Innovative leaders must be open to ideas from anywhere and everywhere in our organizations. We must accept the tension that demanding efficiency may, in turn, totally work against innovation—bureaucracies seek efficiency as equilibrium. Even in the most hierarchical organizations, we can train people to be innovative but, an eco-system must be created for innovation to thrive.
For innovation to survive and thrive in the military, academia, or the corporate world, we must alter our definition of authority. Leaders must shift from being the “sage on the stage” to the “guide on the side”. A mentor and apprentice model allowing space and time for individuals to explore and innovate.
Large organizations are far less adaptable, innovative, and inspiring than they increasingly must be. We exist in an Industrial Age model where strategy is decided at the top. Influence trickles down though the bureaucracy. The “C-Suite”, General Officers, or “Higher Ups” appoint lesser leaders. Individuals compete against each other for promotion, and compensation correlates closely with rank and status. Tasks are assigned and delegated while managers assess performance. Rules are set and govern the organization tightly. This recipe for “bureaucracy” is a 150-year old mashup of military command structure and industrial engineering that constitutes the operating system for virtually every large-scale organization on planet earth. It is inertial, incremental, and uninspiring. Further, it simply can not keep pace with life in the Information Age.
These status quo, bureaucratic leaders worship compliance. That’s their calling—to ensure compliance to instructions, specifications, regulations, deadlines, budgets, quality standards, and policies. I actually just attended a change of command where the new commander proudly announced he would build a culture of compliance. The innovative leader must create new ideas; but more importantly, they must create and curate a culture of innovation and the only way to ensure this outcome is a strong understanding of social innovation. We first must tackle the intractable problem of creating innovative leadership inside bureaucratic entities.
More than 60 years ago, Max Webber wrote the “Theory of Social and Economic Organization” and declared bureaucracy to be “the most rational known means of carrying out imperative control over human beings”. He was indeed correct. Bureaucracy is the technology of human control. It is ideologically and practically opposed to any disorder and/or irregularity.
Author and thought leader Gary Hamel points out—The problem in this Information Age—this age of discontinuity—the irregular people with irregular ideas who create the irregular business models that generate the irregular returns. I would offer—this is true not only in business, but on the international stage as we view irregular warfare with increasingly irregular enemies, striking irregular targets. I actually seek out military members who have yet to be “assimilated” by the the military culture and bring them into the “inner circle” of our organizations to help us be increasingly irregular.
The massive bureaucracies, large businesses, the military, the public sector all cry for social innovation. It is a behemoth that strangles creativity and innovation. We must pursue game-changing approaches rather than safe, incremental improvements, and embrace collaboration in order to cultivate new innovative thinking and ideas.
The Next Generation of Innovative Leaders
It’s the world we live in—crisis, complexity, and confusion (or C3), which demands innovation. So, what can we do? Bring on the social innovators. The social innovator’s ability to “make change” is a must in responding to this C3 environment with communication, collaboration, and creative thinking (3C’s). These 3C’s demand an innovative leader that embodies courage, transparency, and trust in order to promote, create and nourish innovative vision and strategy.
- Courage is the ability and willingness to confront fear, pain, danger, uncertainty, or intimidation. Sir Winston Churchill once said, “Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities . . . because it is the quality which guarantees all others.” It’s natural that all leaders face fear—fear of failure, fear of the unknown, fear of competition, and sometimes simply the fear of getting out of bed. But living in fear is massively destructive to any organization and will kill innovation and momentum. Courage is not something we are born with, it is learned. The natural response is to run from what frightens us, but life’s greatest leaps occur when we resist this impulse and confront the issues that challenge us most.
- Further, I would argue innovative leaders must have moral courage or the ability to act rightly in the face of opposition, shame, scandal, or discouragement.
- Transparency implies openness, communication, and accountability. Transparency is operating in such a way that it is easy for others to see what actions are performed. It has been defined simply as “the perceived quality of intentionally shared information from a sender”. Stephen Covey noted that being transparent is a powerful thing—If you can trust yourself and be trusted by others, organizations flourish. The reason most leaders are not transparent is because they believe they will be viewed as less authoritative; that the credentials and position they worked so hard to attain will lose their power, leverage, and gravitas. This is a problem for many leaders as they are not open to the reality that exists around them. People want to relate to their leaders. People want to know that their leaders have experienced the same problems and/or how they have overcome personal hardships. It’s a mentoring relationship, not the proverbial “sage on the stage”.
- Trust is the reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something or one in which confidence is placed. Trust-related problems in an organization such as redundancy, bureaucracy, fraud, and turnover kill productivity, divert resources, squander opportunities, and chip away at a company’s brand ultimately destroy innovation. On the other hand, a leader who makes building trust in an organization a priority elevate trust to a strategic advantage accelerating growth, enhancing innovation, improving collaboration and execution, and increasing organizational value.
Leaders drive change, communication, and the promise of innovative collaboration. Heads of governments, militaries, companies, social enterprises, and non-profits are increasingly recognizing the power of innovation which holds great potential for driving even stronger results for their organizations and society in the years to come, but first we need social innovators to come alongside our massive organizations and help us create innovative leaders, an eco-system that supports innovation, and a creative culture for the information age.