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Innovation Notes: Control Versus Innovation


Lose Control to Spark Innovation 

Our perception is that anything we cannot control will quickly become a threat in business. We are taught to ‘control outcomes’ to ‘keep the situation under control’ to put ‘good controls in place.’ Sometimes controls are absolutely essential. It’s good for us to know what the parameters are. A healthy economy will have established regulatory controls to some degree.. Financial controls warn us when too many financial risks are being taken. When we don’t have robust and adaptive controls in place, systems are much more likely to fail.

While consistent positive performance is great, sometimes our need for control can produce negative outcomes. Our own fear of failure can become stultifying. Our egos begin to run the show. In its worst manifestation we become rigid, righteous, ‘my way or the highway’ type of people. We all have enough experience to know that when we are afraid, we struggle to take risks, yet that fear of failure means that leaders often concentrate decision making to a small group of people in order to exert the control that they think is necessary to preserve their track record of success.

If we fall into the control trap, we attempt to manage the actions of other people, which is really the antithesis of effective leadership. Not only is this exhausting, but it is ineffective. Here, we forget the fundamental truth of innovation: it is impossible to control people and encourage them to be innovative at the same time. If innovation is part of our desired outcome, we have to re-evaluate how we think about the controls we exert in our day to day business. 

This criticism of control brings up resistance. We imagine that in a less controlled environment it is difficult to meet our quotas, successfully manufacture products, and projects that need to come in on time and on budget suddenly drag out and swell up. We wonder, “How do I do that without being in control?” And it’s a fair question. You are, after all, the boss for a reason! 

Running a meeting often looks like this–you assign tasks to your team and make a larger statement about what needs to be executed and by when. We make an assignment and we execute by deadline. How would things change if we transitioned away from making top down statements? What if instead we inquired about what is possible and invited contributions from our team? At first pass, it sounds like total chaos would ensue. It’s won’t, and here’s why:- 

  1. You know that given the right leadership, your people can accomplish amazing things. Assuming that you do genuinely believe that you are that ‘ right leadership’,  you have the self awareness to know where negative behaviors can show up for you. If you default to control, as many of us do, the short term gain is going to be a long term risk as your team becomes more and more disempowered and less competent. 
  2. Given context, encouragement, and resources, your team, altogether, is a lot smarter than you are as an individual. Many heads are better than one, and that is what you hired them in the first place.
  3. We know that when people are given autonomy, they are more innovative. They find more effective and efficient ways to do things, they take better care of customers and each other, they’re happier and they do much better work. 

How do you need to lead in order to tap into the innovation capacity already on your team?

There are three pillars of this type of leadership:

1. Context
Context answers that important question of ‘Why’ or ‘For the sake of What.’ Why are we doing this? What is the value? Who is it valuable for? You cannot answer those questions with quarterly results requirements. These questions are best answered with a story or narrative. This is the inspiration, the vision, the passion, the reason why you and your people show up every day. This has to encompass not only what drives you but also what drives each of them.

2. Encouragement
I am not asking you to cheerlead here. I’m encouraging you to make people understand that the offers they make are both heard and valued. The story you weave to create context is the inspiration, but encouragement is an essential safety net. Encouragement communicates to your team: I’ve got your back. Part of offering encouragement involves flying cloud cover and making sure your people don’t fail the first time. A good leader is willing to listen to any offer - no matter how crazy or clumsy they are. Encouragement involves behaving like a customer for your team and working with them to improve their offers through co-invention and negotiation so the offers they make to you become more valuable. 

3. Resources
Learning how to deliver value and satisfaction with the resources you have available involves negotiating directly with the people you are seeking to satisfy. This is a learned skill and one that is essential to the functioning of any  innovative environment, but most people need to be explicitly taught how to do this. When someone walks into your office and asks for more resources, use this as an opportunity to teach them how to negotiate. Ask them for the business case, what return on investment can they commit to, who else do they need to engage with to improve the value.. Every project has a wide variety of parameters, and each parameter can be negotiated. Your job is to illuminate these points of negotiation and make sure everyone understands them.

Practicing these pillars enables us to ask deeper and different questions, we start asking richer and more sophisticated inquiries of our own leaders. While you are doing this you will also see more interesting, valuable, inspiring, and fun offers that your team will want to make. You will increase the innovation capacity of your team by leading them to learn, grow and achieve more, the absolute opposite effect of micro-management. You’ll also have more time to do what you want to do, innovate, lead and make even greater things happen for you and your team.  Enjoy! 

More on this next week!

Thanks for reading,