Hear the word ‘innovation’ and you may well immediately picture a smart new application or the latest gadget. But achieving true innovation requires much more than simply the latest, novel technology. To achieve scale and impact, innovation also needs new business models, new ways of doing things and, in fact, a whole new mindset.

That’s not to dismiss the challenge of marshalling the ingenuity and creativity that goes into developing new technology. Far from it. But harnessing innovation to achieve scale and impact, especially within an established organisation, could be even more difficult. For the Singapore government, disruptive technologies offer new opportunities to redefine economic value creation and service delivery. But to succeed in every instance requires an evolution of culture and mindset that can support a new, innovation-ready public service employee.

The good news? We’re already seeing cultures and mindsets evolve. But what’s often overlooked as an inhibitor to innovation is the role that leaders play and the culture they build in their organisations.

Innovation is, by its very nature, an uncertain process. So to cope with that uncertainty, we often see leadership teams concentrating decision-making in just a trusted few people at the top. But that concentration is likely to have a direct impact on the degree to which an organisation’s employees feel that they too are empowered to innovate. But we know that employee empowerment is one of the central planks of any successful innovation strategy.

How can leaders resolve this apparent paradox? It’s clearly not desirable to abandon all control and simply let people loose. But there is a balance to be found between total centralisation and unconstrained decentralisation. Methods and tools can be centralised to support employees with a common language and approach to driving innovation. But employees should own the ideas and outputs they develop using those tools, with associated funding and support also decentralised. That’s not easy. And it’s especially hard to do in established, hierarchical organisations where employees typically seek and are granted permission to do something, rather than being expected to drive and own outcomes themselves.

Recognising that this is a tough challenge, we’re seeing organisations encouraging greater diversity that reflects the need for more varied styles of both leadership and leaders. The permission-granting, chain-of-command model is undoubtedly effective for focusing an organisation on achieving its current vision. But it’s probably also limiting the search for the answers it needs to solve tomorrow’s challenges and opportunities. And that’s especially so when it’s likely that the answers for the future will require collaboration beyond traditional boundaries and disciplines.

We recently ran a two-day innovation incubator workshop with a client that was known for its regimental command-control style of leadership. Our aim was to help them develop a set of tools and know-how to systematically nurture innovation, while committing senior leaders’ time to listening and guiding their teams as they mature their innovation ideas and move them into experimentation. Through the workshop we were able to show leaders that they have the multi-disciplinary teams with a solid grasp of the problems they want to solve. With the proper support and latitude, they are the very same people who are ready to be entrepreneurial and accountable for their ideas and help drive the organisation towards its goals for the future.

A different, future-focused leadership style is essential to drive innovation. It requires leaders to really listen and take calculated risks. They must enable their teams to experiment, and be tolerant of failure when it happens and seek to identify why something has not worked, and learn from it, rather than trying to identity who is to blame.

Building a supportive environment like this will empower people to:

  • come forward with ideas,
  • challenge conventional practices, including leadership wisdom,
  • persistently evangelise their ideas to gain support across boundaries and silos,
  • work together across silos to build initial ideas and bring tested ideas to fruition, and
  • accept failure as part of the innovation process.

Granted, all of these are tall orders. No one said it would be easy to innovate. But then again, who ever said leadership was for the faint-hearted?

For more Smart Nation insights, visit our Smart Nation page.

Ng Wee Wei

Country Managing Director – Accenture Singapore

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