Part III: Leading a Culture of Innovation

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Often when the topic of creating a culture of innovation arises, the discussion seems to focus on running activities such as “hack-a-thons”, “start-up weekends” or innovation training. While these may be useful tools to enhance an existing culture, they are less helpful in engendering an organic tradition of innovation at ground level. Rather, they are more akin to mandated activities, imposing a culture of innovation on unwilling participants. In a sense, this approach treats the symptoms, rather than getting to the root cause of the problem. The truth is that humans naturally seek new ways to do things all the time. Thus, if there is not a culture of innovation, it’s because the underlying organisational culture has actively discouraged it. In this situation, simply running innovation activities fails to address the fundamental issue: therein lies the difference between engendering a culture, and imposing one.

There are three ways a leader can impact this underlying culture in their units: through asking questions, coaching, and encouraging ‘unlearning’.

Firstly, the role of a leader is to ask questions. In a rapidly evolving world, critical knowledge is more dispersed than ever; consequently, leaders trying to provide answers on their own will always miss some decisive factors. Ask the right questions, however, then drive your team to develop clever and creative answers, and the organisation can come together to provide more comprehensive solutions than one person ever could. The questions you ask should inspire others by questioning fundamental assumptions that have been held as truth. The key here is not to use questions to throw off junior team members, or try to catch people out during a presentation. Too often key questions come in the form of accusations—such as “why didn’t you do this?” or “did you even think about that?”—rather than trying to explore new ways of thinking. Most people will be familiar with the 5-Whys framework, which gets to the root of a problem by asking ‘why’ five times. This is perfect example of asking smart questions.

Secondly, leaders need to coach their teams. Coaching is becoming more and more popular in discussions around leadership and it is pretty clear why. Mentoring our teams enables leaders to better leverage them to positively impact the organisation. This is especially true with innovation; when one of the team’s ideas fail, as some inevitably will, a good leader will mentor them through the process of analysing what went wrong and how to learn from, and prevent, the failure occurring again. In order to do so effectively, however, empathy is crucial. This means remaining aware of individuals may not be comfortable putting their thoughts forward and that, too often, the best ideas never leave our people’s heads. Coaching your team is thus about drawing out their ideas and then driving them in the right direction to pursue these schemes. There is clearly a strong link between this mentoring process, and the leader’s first method for addressing unit culture, asking questions. Coaching is less about telling people what they should do and more about asking people how they think they should go about it. An open door is vital to this process, as it allows personnel to approach and discuss concepts/ideas with you. Building this rapport and subordinates’ trust can, in time, work to overcome the fact that often those who need coaching the most are the least likely to seek it.

Finally, while there is a common misconception that asking questions and coaching are about learning, it can be argued that unlearning is just as important a skill for a leader seeking to alter unit culture. If past experience from NZ Army Innovation and NZDF Innovation has demonstrated one thing, it is that learnings are easily accepted into an organisation, but unlearnings, though often more important are far harder to accept. So what does unlearning actually mean? Unlearning is essentially about letting go of outdated or obsolete assumptions. To quote a great military leader, with hundreds of years of experience, “You must unlearn what you have learned.”—Yoda.

Cultures, ideas, and frameworks cannot be continuously added to without the removal of old ways of thinking. This has been demonstrated throughout history: the French had to unlearn the assumption that esprit de corps was the key to overcoming a well defended enemy position in 1914. Similary, in 1921, US Minister of Defense, Newton Baker, stated “To throw bombs from an airplane will do as much damage as throwing bags of flour. It will be my pleasure to stand on the bridge of any ship while it is attacked by airplanes”. While these lessons seem ridiculous to us now, they demonstrate the psychological challenge of unlearning.

For the reader’s interest I have listed several military quotes at the bottom of the article that demonstrate a need for ‘unlearning’.

As leaders we must make sure we are continuously unlearning. It is often a highly uncomfortable process, challenging an assumption that we have held true for most of our careers. But taking a few moments toquestion core assumptions about the military and military operations may allow your brain togenerate new innovations to fill the gaps left by the unlearning process. The real key to success here is to inculcate this mindset in your whole team. Encourage the organisation to question what practices they are clinging to for the sake of “this is how we have always done it”.

If this can be coupled with an inquisitive leadership, asking the right questions and coaching their team members, then it is possible to achieve an organic culture of innovation. It is this organic culture of innovation, rather than a command ‘imposed’ culture that will form the glue that will bind all the other key element of innovation together. When these factors align, leaders will be consistently innovative and support innovation within their teams. Any organisation that is able to engender innovation across the entire organisation will be able to out-think and out-perform any potential adversaries.

1800s – Napoleon Bonaparte: You’re planning to make a ship sail against the wind and tide by lighting a fire below deck? I have no time for this nonsense-In response to seeing the plans for the first steamship. 

1911 – General Ferdinand Foch: Aeroplanes are interesting toys but of no military value.

 1914 – Admiral William Henderson: Even if a submarine should work by a miracle, it will never be used. No country in this world would ever use such a vicious and petty form of warfare.

1921 – Journal of the United Services Institute:The Cavalry will never be scrapped to make room for the tanks; in the course of time Cavalry may be reduced as the supply of horses in the country diminishes. This greatly depends on the life of fox hunting.

1930 – Dr Robert Millikan (Physicist and Nobel Prize winner): No ‘scientific bad boy’ ever will be able to blow up the world by releasing atomic energy.

This is Part III of a three part series on ‘Leading Innovation’.

About the author

Tim Jones is the Assistant Director Defence Excellence (Innovation) New Zealand Defence Force. He is also a member of the New Zealand Army Reserves, serving in the Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment.