Promoting innovation: lead, follow, AND get out of the way

Written by Joe McKendrick, Contributing Writer

Here's a paradox -- can an organization with a fairly rigid management structure build rule-breaking into its corporate culture?

Walk into a rigid, controlling organization, and chances are you will find a 9-to-5, watch-the-clock mentality -- and not a whole lot of innovation. More open organizations that encourage and inspire employees to run with their ideas are more likely to see growth through innovation.

Bob Sutton, visionary extraordinaire and author of Weird Ideas That Work: How to Build a Creative Company, says the best leaders are those who encourage their people to if not break the rules, then at least sidestep them, when they feel passionate about a new idea.

That's one of the challenges of innovation. Namely, that it shouldn't be a challenge. As Sutton points out in a blog post, "innovation often happens despite rather than because of senior management," and oddly enough, "the best leaders often realize that their very presence can sometimes stifle innovation."

Sutton says many of the best innovations companies have seen have been the result of employees that have pressed on with a project in spite of management efforts to suppress it. In the book, one of his suggestions is to "encourage people to ignore and defy superiors.”

As Sutton puts it: "the best leadership is sometimes no leadership at all (or leadership by getting out of the way)."

Sutton cites examples of defiance that produced amazing innovations: back in 1925, a 3M manager forged ahead and created masking tape, even though management told him to cease and desist from such a silly project. 3M learned from the incident and has always encouraged technical employees to spend 15% of their time working on projects without anyone's permission. In HP's early days, management tried to kill a display monitor an employee was working on -- but the employee pressed on in his own time, eventually resulting in a top-selling product for the company.

Sutton also cites a study published in 1997 that tracked the progress of 171 employees in a manufacturing plant, which compared those with controlling and non-controlling supervisors.Employees with non-controlling supervisors made considerably more novel and useful suggestions.

Encouraging innovation among all employees is smart business, because in today's competitive economy, new ideas mean gaining the edge in markets.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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