Which does your leadership do? Do they play it safe—staying the same familiar course, avoiding potential change and upset or do they provoke to action, encourage continuous improvement, are they genuinely open to new ideas, and do they embrace the possibilities (along with the risks) of doing things better, faster, and cheaper?
Surely, some leaders are masters of envisioning a brighter future and provoking the change to make it happen. Leaders from Apple, Google, Amazon, and other special leaders come to mind. But many others remain complacent to deliver short-term results, not “rock the boat,“ and keep on fighting the day-to-day fires rather than curing the firefighting illness and moving the organization to innovation, ideation, and transformation through strategic formulation and execution.
Provoking to action is risky for leaders as the old saying goes, “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down,” and often leaders that make even the best-intentioned mistakes in trying to do the “right thing“ get sorely punished. Only enlightened organizations encourage innovation and experimentation and recognize that failure is part of the process to get to success.
While responsible leaders, almost by definition, provide a stable, reliable, secure, and robust operating environment, we must balance this with the need to grow and change productively over time. We need more organizations and leaders to stand up and provoke action—to drive new ways of thinking and doing things—to break the complacency mindset and remove the training wheels to allow a freer, faster, and more agile movement of organizational progress. To provoke action, we need to make our people feel safe to look out for long-term organizational success strategies rather than just short-term bottom line numbers.
Harvard Business Review (December 2009) provides some useful tips for provoking action called “Five Discovery Skills Separate True Innovators from the Rest of Us.“
- Associating—Develop a broad knowledgebase and regularly give yourself the time and space to freely associate—allow your brain to connect the dots in new ways and see past old stovepipes. “Fresh inputs trigger new associations; for some these lead to new ideas.”
- Questioning–”Innovators constantly ask questions that challenge common wisdom.” We need to “question the unquestionable” as Ratan Tata put it. We must challenge long-held assumptions and “Ask why? Why not? And What if?” Don’t be afraid to play devil’s advocate. Let your imagination flow and “imagine a completely different alternative.” Remove barriers to creative thinking and banish fear of people laughing at you, talking behind your back, dismissing you, or even conducting acts of reprisal.
- Observing—Careful observation of people and how they behave provides critical insights into what is working and what isn’t. There is a cool field of study in the social sciences called ethnomethodology that studies just such everyday human behavior and provides a looking glass through which we can become aware of and understand the ways things are and open us up to the way things could be better.
- Experimenting—We’ve got to try new things and approaches to learn from them and see if they work and how to refine them. Productive changes don’t just happen all of a sudden like magic; they are cultivated, tested, refined, and over time evolve into new best practices for us and our organizations. Experimentation involves “intellectual exploration, physical tinkering[and] engaging in new surroundings.”
- Networking—It’s all about people: they inspire us, provoke us, complement us, and are a sounding board for us. We get the best advances and decisions when we vet ideas with a diverse group of people. Having a diverse group of people provides different perspectives and insights that cannot be gleaned any other way. There is “power in numbers”–and I am not referring to the power to defeat our enemies, but the power to think critically and synergistically. The group can build something greater than any individual alone ever could.
Of course, we cannot drive change like a speeding, runaway train until it crashes and burns. Rather, change and innovation must be nurtured. We must provoke to action our organizations and our people to modernize and transform through critical thinking, questioning the status quo, regular observation and insight, the freedom to experiment and constructively fail, and by building a diverse and synergistic network of people that can be greater than the sum of their parts.