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Creating a soft environment for Innovation

First: Thinking and Problem solving

More and more organizations in China are moving towards a culture of innovation. In cultivating such a cultural environment, it is natural for organizations to stress capabilities such as innovative thinking and problem solving.

What is oftentimes not given sufficient attention are the leadership and communication processes that can create a soft environment empowering and enabling innovation. These seemingly indirect factors do not lead to idea generation itself, however, when they are not managed properly, they do hinder new ideas from being expressed or pursued further and let opportunities pass by.

How can those processes dynamically influence innovation? In the following, we provide some hints from our empirical experiences in working with real life organizations that are for a culture of innovation.

Of course: Communication

Effective communication is essential for effectiveness in innovation. At the outset, whether one dares to speak up a bizarre idea or when an idea is only half mature makes a major difference. Evidently varies types of concerns can block initial ideas from being expressed, such as concern for the quality of the idea, for self image, for negative responses or challenging remarks from others.

In addition, how others react to an articulated new idea constitutes a feedback loop that may either encourage more speaking up behaviors or prevent similar ideas from being expressed in the future.

Affirmative judgements from others instead of passive remarks focusing on infeasibility encourage desired future actions. Furthermore, when an idea is expressed and others react positively to enrich the ideas, the person from whom the idea originates can choose either to defend with a closed mind or listen humbly for new perspectives. Evidently, behavioral choices in each of the above mentioned steps are crucial for success in innovation. In effect, many more communication behaviors can be identified and cultivated in an innovation team.

More importantly, we found the more precise we are in encouraging specific communication behaviors, the more likely we can succeed in helping people making breakthroughs. For example, asking to “have a team orientation” in generating ideas is vague and broad; on the other hand, asking to “openly acknowledge merits in seemingly infeasible ideas” is specific and manageable. Through the above mentioned behavioral intervention, we can help an innovation team to foster a soft environment for innovation.

A culture of innovation

While behaviors like “speaking up” is something we can encourage and train at individual level, a team culture of “daring to speak up” demands leadership actions. According to the Center for Creative Leadership, research show that 20-67 percent of the variance on the climate for creativity in organizations is directly attributed to the behavior of the leader. CCL further listed leadership attributes that can create a culture for innovation, including curiosity, ambiguity tolerance, affirmative judgements, and persistence. In our empirical work, we found that ‘walking the talk’ and ‘giving autonomy’ are critical for building an innovative culture.

Presumably a team member can hardly find opportunities to speak up when he/she has a leader who enjoys expressing himself much more than listening. Additionally, after an idea is spoken, the leader needs to ‘walk the talk’ in giving affirmative judgements to such behaviors and more importantly, when possible, allocate resources to genuinely support the materialization of a seemingly bizarre idea.

In reality, those feedback loops are essential for the shaping of a truly innovative culture. Another critical factor significant for innovation is ‘autonomy’.

Autonomy: a basic condition

As we understand, autonomy is a basic human need. It is even more fundamental for innovative people.

Specifically, leading an innovative team demands a leadership style that gives enough space for imagination, free thinking, and trial and error. New ideas only come into being when there is feeling of freedom and a relaxing mind.

Evidently, a leadership of “command and control “ can hardly work with innovation people.

Leaders of innovation team particularly need to feel comfortable leading from behind and the back stage instead of leading in front.

Fly, Fly

As Einstein put it, logic can get you from A to B, imagination can take you everywhere.

A soft environment conducive for innovation gives room for imagination and nurtures a new idea from conception to industrialization.

Joanne Zhang


Januari 2015

Research done by the Centre for Creative Leadership
© 2018 TonVoogtConsultancy ~ Recent Update 24-08-2017
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