Leading edge organizations consistently innovate, and do so with courage. It is the task of organizational leaders
to provide the culture and climate that nurtures and acknowledges innovation at every level. Notwithstanding the fact that leadership is critically important, it is nevertheless insufficient on its own to build a culture of continuous improvement and innovation. To build a culture of innovation, many innovation champions must be identified, recruited, developed, trained, encouraged and acknowledged throughout the organization.
In order to build a successful and sustainable culture of innovation, leadership needs to accomplish two broad tasks. First leaders need to be acutely sensitive to their environment and acutely aware of the impact that they themselves have on those around them. This sensitivity enables them to provide an important human perspective to the task at hand and is critical because it is only within this awareness that the leader can begin to bridge the gap between “leader speak” and the real world of organizational culture. The second factor is the ability of leaders to accept and deal with ambiguity. Innovation cannot occur without ambiguity, and organizations and individuals that are not able to tolerate ambiguity in the work place environment and relationships reproduce only routine actions. Innovative structures, for example, Innovation cannot have all attendant problems worked out in advance.
Leaders need to build a deep appreciation of this fact; otherwise there will be a tendency to create cultures of blame. Tolerance of ambiguity allows space for risk taking, and exploration of alternative solution spaces, which do not always produce business results. This hedges against constant deployment of tried and tested routines for all occasions. Tom Peters comes close to the mark in highlighting that most successful managers have an unusual ability to resolve paradox, to translate conflicts and tensions into excitement, high commitment and superior performance.
Characteristics that distinguish highly innovative firms against less innovative companies are as follows:
- Top management commits both financial and emotional support to innovation, and they promote innovation through champions and advocates for innovation.
- Top management has to ensure that realistic and accurate assessments of the markets are made for the planned innovation. Highly innovative firms are close to the end users, and are accurately able to assess potential demand.
- Top management ensures that innovation projects get the necessary support from all levels of the organization.
- Top management ensures that structured methodology/systems are set in place so that each innovation goes through a careful screening process prior to actual implementation.
The above suggests that senior management play a pivotal role in enhancing or hindering organizational innovation. If senior management is able to install all of the above types of procedures and practices then they effectively seed a climate conducive to innovation. It is important to note that it is not sufficient to only emphasize one or few practices.