Why Are There so Few Innovative Managers?

How to Foster More Innovation in Your Organization

Innovation is critical to business success. Does this mean that managers need to be more innovative or should they be better at fostering it in others?

Business gurus constantly call for managers to be more innovative. It was because managers were felt to be poor innovators in the late 1970s and early 80s that there was a great hue and cry to replace them with leaders, especially in North America where the industry was getting battered by Japanese competition. Today, most modern businesses are more innovative than they were 30 years ago but managers are still pushed to become better innovators. We need to understand why they are not innovative enough, whether they should be and what can be done about the need for faster innovation.

The Function of Management

The main purpose of management is to deliver immediate results as efficiently and as profitably as possible. Due in part to human impatience and pressure from stock markets, managers are driven to focus on the short term. Short term performance is also easier to measure than the rather hopeful fruits of creative thinking. The old saying “you get what you pay for” plays a big part in stifling innovation. There is no point encouraging managers to be more innovative if what is actually rewarded is short term performance. All people, not just managers, do what gets reinforced, not what others might like them to do.

More importantly, the purpose of management is to get work done through people. Managers themselves should not be expected to think creatively. Those who do too much thinking and problem solving run the risk of disempowering their teams. Too many managers see their role as a decision making one in which they feel they should have all the answers. Such managers are never very effective. Excellent managers are facilitators, catalysts and coaches. They will, of course, have ideas of their own but their primary focus is on asking stimulating questions to draw ideas out of team members. This is what it means to get work done through people – it is not just a matter of effective delegation because much of our work today is mental. Innovation is all about thinking differently and one of the best ways for a manager to get this sort of work done through others is to continually ask them questions that push them to think differently.

Managerial Selection Criteria

Organizations often have a competency profile to help them select managers. Such profiles might include innovation, but the priority for efficiency and immediate results means that many of the candidates who get promoted have strengths in planning, organizing and task execution. These skills deliver results but may not be conducive to creative thinking. The reality again is that the ability to deliver results is what gets rewarded. Innovation gets left in the realm of wishful thinking.

Two Organizational Tasks

All organizations, to differing degrees, have two tasks: one is to deliver today’s business results and the other is to invent the future, to renew themselves and evolve to keep pace with changes in their markets and competitor offerings. Too many gurus who advocate innovation overlook this fact. Turning managers into creative thinkers or replacing them could throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. Both tasks are important. Innovation is less important in industries that compete on cost, service or quality and more important in industries where innovation rules. But all businesses need to address both of these two tasks simultaneously to prosper.

How to Foster Innovation

Having to address two quite different, almost opposing tasks does not call for different types of managers. It is simply counterproductive to expect managers themselves to be more creative when being organized and efficient is their core skill set.

The key is to create a culture that supports innovation. Managers still need to be organized and to operate as facilitators, coaches and catalysts. However, they need to be held accountable and rewarded for attending to both organizational tasks – delivering today’s results and fostering innovation in their teams. Managers personally need strengths relating to execution. They just need to be rewarded for applying these skills to each of the two very different organizational tasks.

An innovative culture that also delivers today’s results profitably must have a “both-and” mindset. This means being both efficient and innovative, says life coach, Charlotte Ferrier . The former requires minimizing mistakes while the latter depends on experimentation – making and learning from mistakes. No one can behave in both of these opposing ways at the same time, so it must be made clear which actions relate to delivering results and which to innovation. This makes life more complex but this is what managers have to do if they want to succeed in a complex world.

In conclusion, it is a mistake to criticize managers for not being innovative enough. The key is to know the difference between being innovative and being able to foster this activity in others.