Innovation is about changing behaviours: Innovation is therefore about Leadership

I’ve been thinking again about leaders and their role in helping to create an innovative organisation.  It is a really serious issue since leaders have the capacity of torpedoing their own best efforts, almost without realising it.  The trouble is that, sometimes, leaders don’t realise that Innovation is a challenging and subtle process – to be effective, it should be seen not so much as a skill or even a process, as important as they are.  Innovation is really much more about behaviour.  It’s genuinely as fundamental as that.  And changing behaviour is one of the toughest challenges a leader will ever face.

Many years ago, I became the leader of a large arts organisation with over 200 staff.   The company was located across a number of locations and we also went on to specialise in what today might be called ‘pop up theatre’, but which, in those days, was called ‘non-velvet theatre’, a phrase promulgated in inimitable fashion by Barrie Rutter of Northern Broadsides.  When I arrived to run this company, I found a dysfunctional organisation – no two departments respected each other, much less actually talked to each other.  Half of the organisation felt ignored and undervalued as they watched massive capital investment going into the other half.  The entire workforce had broken into small groups, each with its own leader more concerned to protect vested interests than to contribute to the success of the whole organisation.  This state of dysfunction was inevitably being felt by, and having an impact on, both customers and suppliers.  The organisation had begun to lose both.  They had certainly started to lose status within the sector.   The jackals were circling –  yes, we have them in our sector too! – predatory cultural behemoths with no interest in the organisation itself but keen to be able to convert it to suit their own purposes, just waiting for the right moment to strike – deals were already in discussion, led for the organisation by unknowing and uncaring officials who regarded the organisation as a deeply irritating waste of time and money.

So, of course, then I had some fun.  We started to re-introduce first rate work to the venues, rebuilding confidence; we sent the behemoths packing with several fleas in their ears; I disengaged as much as I could from the unknowing, uncaring officials.  I then turned my attention to the company.  With financial help from Arts & Business and the commercial arm of a University, we raised enough money to secure support in embarking on a significant change management programme that took over two years for us to feel we were on our way.  It was a series of small steps, sustained unquestioningly for the whole period, and daily made manifest by the overt passion, commitment and engagement of a leadership team who gave new power to the phrase “Walk the Talk”.  They lived the values they advocated throughout the organisation.  No project was too small to be included; no project too large to warrant the effort.  We engaged emotionally as well as intellectually.  The entire organisation experienced the ripple effect of success in a particular department and learned to acknowledge it.  They learned to respect and support each other largely through a proper understanding of the contribution of the different roles to the overall success.  Cross disciplinary working became standard and most people blossomed in the new and wider recognition of their competence.  Those that didn’t, left: simply, voluntarily, no disciplinary processes:  the pressure of peer approval was more effective than any hierarchical appraisal process.

Now, years later, after working with a wide range of client organisations, both here and internationally, in both the arts and other sectors, I know that, without the quality and depth of that leadership engagement, we would not have succeeded in turning things around as successfully as we did.  The company was made up of a group of terrific people, as are most companies; but what actually made the difference was the overt and sustained engagement of the leadership in achieving the changes needed.  They captured the hearts and minds of everyone else, who then felt confident to take the risks necessary to change their own behaviours, which led to the new organisational culture, which, in turn, resulted in value for the customers and measurable benefit for themselves. It takes time, and it is not painless.  Chances are you will hit the boulders on this as on any other journey.  But with the demonstrable commitment of the leadership, people will find the courage and the confidence to sustain their engagement.

Business studies research shows that 70% of change management programmes fail.  John Kotter, the guru of change management, attributes this to the failure of leaders to ‘capture hearts and minds’.  If you are introducing innovation into your organisation, be clear about the scale of the challenge:  you are aiming to change behaviours.  Be sure you capture those hearts and minds.

Anamaria Wills

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