Who are the true innovation leaders within an organisation? Well yes, some of them may sit at the top table. In fact, if you’ve read the first article in this series, leading innovation, you may remember that I commented that if it’s not on the top team’s agenda it’s not going to be in the culture. But if innovation only gets as far as the top table then you’re not going to finish up with a very innovative organisation…
Sadly there is evidence to suggest that in some organisations innovation remains a top-tier ambition rather than a business-wide culture.
For example, the recent Wazoku Everyday Innovation Report revealed that 53% of British business managers believe innovation to be a buzzword which holds little meaning in their day-to-day job and 38% of managers say innovation is not their responsibility because it’s not in their job description.
But innovation shouldn’t be a matter simply for job descriptions.
In organisations which have embraced a culture of innovation, every individual takes ownership of the innovation agenda. As result, the business embraces a more entrepreneurial mindset with employees seeing themselves less as workers within the business and more as part owners of business success.
Step forward the i-agents…
But even within a completely innovative organisation there has to be a group of individuals who lead and shape the innovation agenda, providing guidance and structure in order that others can flourish.
In our book we call these individuals i-agents and I will follow that terminology in this article.
However it’s important to acknowledge that just as the innovation mix is specific to an organisation, so too is the terminology used and therefore these individuals may be referred to in numerous ways in different organisations.
What is important is that these individuals, these i-agents, are not solely drawn from the top leadership team and nor should selection be confined to middle manager or team leader layers.
There is evidence to suggest that in some organisations innovation remains a top-tier ambition rather than a business-wide culture.
Let me explain. In every organisation there are some individuals who may or may not have a formal title but who through longevity or personality or knowledge base are key influencers. These are the opinion formers, the shapers on whose shoulders initiatives succeed or fail.
We hope that their influence is positive (if it isn’t then why are they still with you?) but it is through their attitude and leadership that the innovation ideal will spread throughout the organisation. At this stage is probably worth saying that appointing i-agents doesn’t mean that the leadership can switch off from innovation and move on to the next task.
Building a culture of innovation is an ongoing, ever evolving challenge and the top table leadership have to live innovation and demonstrate innovation every day or the initiative will fail.
So how do we select these i-agents?
This is where HR expertise can come to the fore but in truth i-agents are a virtually self-selecting group.
These are the people who through their attitude to work, the way in which they approach a problem and the way in which they interact with colleagues, customers and others have a strong influence on the attitudes and behaviours evidenced throughout the organisation. And it is important that you select i-agents from every level across the business.
In organisations which have embraced a culture of innovation, every individual takes ownership of the innovation agenda.
Not only will this help to inculcate an innovation mentality at every level, it will increase the likelihood that different groups will find someone who speaks to their hearts.
Having identified your i-agents, you need to take them through the change journey and to give them the tools which they will require to influence others in the change.
The skills which they will require will depend on the individual but should at the very least include communication and influencing skills.
Communicating and influencing skills
Let’s look at these in a little more detail starting with communication skills. In our article on leading innovation we looked at the 5Cs of communication:
These communication skills are as important in your i-agents as they are in your top leadership team.
Equally important is the ability to question and to listen.
This not only will help your i-agents to identify and overcome objections, it will help them to drive a two-way approach which will bolster collaboration and the exchange of information across the organisation., In particular the feedback gathered by i-agents can help leaders to shape the future direction and delivery of innovation initiatives.
Listening and communicating is only part of the story when you are looking to your i-agents to influence outlook and behaviour across the business.
These individuals may have been chosen for their natural leadership and influencing abilities but if they are to achieve a successful outcome they will need to be given the tools and techniques which will enable them to fine tune their natural abilities.
These techniques may include training in the theory and practice of leadership and change management, overcoming objections, lateral thinking and personal awareness.
Identifying and training i-agents in this way not only helps to build innovation aptitude across the business and provides the support and training for middle managers to lead collaborative teams, it also provides a strong base for training future leaders.
Leadership is a journey and if you are able to identify those who have natural leadership ability at an early stage and help them to develop their leadership abilities then you are setting the organisation on a strong footing for the future.