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The Innovation Coach

Organizational renewal is about evolution, adapting to new situations, taking advantage of new opportunities and becoming a new and different organization in the process. Over the past decade or so, management literature has championed organizational renewal (“reinventing ourselves”) as a critical survival strategy for sustained success. But despite all of the compelling stories of new product development, “skunk works” and “incubators” that appear on business bookshelves, it remains difficult for most leaders to put wheels on the concept of renewal and innovation. We see the challenge for leaders to be one of communicating the importance of innovation and renewal and creating conditions that allow their organizations to learn and to change.

How Birds Do It
Former Shell executive Arie de Geus suggests that the question “How does an organization—as distinct from an individual—learn?” might be addressed by looking at birds. Citing the work of biochemist Allan Wilson, de Geus offers the hypothesis that organizations can improve their ability to exploit opportunities in the environment if they are able, like certain species of birds, to demonstrate these three performance “characteristics”:

Innovation. Either as individuals or as a community, the species has the capacity (or at least the potential) to invent new behavior. They can develop skills that allow them to exploit their environment in new ways.

Social propagation. There is an established process for transmission of a skill from the individual to the community as a whole, not genetically, but somehow through direct communication.

Mobility. The individuals of the species have the ability to move around, and (more importantly) they actually use it! They flock or move in herds, rather than sitting in isolated territories.

As metaphors go, this one about bird behavior provides valuable and usable insights. As we examine how leadership communication nurtures adaptation and innovation, we organize our approach around the three conditions for species learning:

Innovation. Challenging creative people to be inventive, both inside and outside “the box.” Because you aren’t the only idea person in the organization, you need to see yourself as a coach of a broadly shared responsibility for problem solving and idea generation. Your challenge is to communicate as a coach and help others communicate effectively as co-owners of the knowledge-creation process.

Sharing. Establishing and managing the communication channels for good ideas to be adopted by others and institutionalized by the organization….In most organizations, new ideas, however brilliant, don’t always get adopted or institutionalized because they fail to get communicated to the right people in the right ways. Rosabeth Moss Kanter has observed, “Experience after experience with innovations that fizzle after a bright start, be they new participative work systems or new products, shows that external relations are a critical factor; the connections, or lack of them, between the area initially producing the innovation and its neighborhood and beyond.” Sometimes, ideas fall into the “not-invented-here” trap. Other times, they simply encounter resistance from people whose budgets are threatened or whose ownership in the status quo is under attack.

Socializing. The key leadership task here is helping a group of talented individuals come together as a team. Unfortunately, organizational structures and the habits they enforce often deter diverse players from getting together….Leaders need to give people license to think and act beyond the place they occupy on the organizational chart. By creating cross-functional teams and task forces that bring different people together, you help ideas spread while connecting people with one another across the organization. Leaders, in other words, need to foster continuous dialogue among many different groups and individuals.

This article is adapted from The Leader as Communicator: Strategies and Tactics to Build Loyalty, Focus Effort and Spark Creativity by Robert Mai and Alan Akerson. Published by AMACOM, AMA’s book division.