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When innovation doesn't have to come from the top

Good people managers can always create an environment where innovators thrive.

A leadership trait that is useful to drive innovation is the ability to ask the right questions to stimulate creative discussions.

CHANGES in sentiments to global trade, increasingly insular attitudes among nations and resource scarcity amid a growing world population are shaping our macroeconomic environment and changing the way business is done, just as "Industry 4.0", "disruption" and "CFE" are becoming the business buzzwords of 2017.

At home, Singapore is also facing sustainability concerns due to challenges posed by the low Total Fertility Rate (TFR) and the rising healthcare demands amid increasing longevity. In response to these changes and the impact on businesses, the war cry of most business leaders/managers is often to "focus on innovation".

Many a time, the word "innovation" is bandied about at management meetings and engagement platforms. As business leaders and managers, how can we be personally more accountable for innovation in organisations and lead this change within our immediate teams?

Do we have to relook at how leaders/managers individually behave and act in the context of innovation?

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As management, we are blessed to be supported by an infrastructure (assistant, team, service priority) to make our working life efficient. This support enables us to focus our energy on key decisions and frees up capacity for us to think more strategically and innovatively. Or simply, we have more time to think.


My experience is that generally team members are not (by nature) lacking imagination or innovation but many have not had the time to think or re-imagine, and when they do have the time, they may lack the confidence needed to re-imagine the possible.

Perhaps a simple immediate leadership action is to consciously help our team members to be more efficient and to nurture in them both the capacity and belief to think innovatively.

This can be done empathetically. Let's start with re-imagining how our own work life can remain effective without the current support structure. One might start to think more of using the phone rather than relying on an assistant.

Why don't we air-print in the office just like we do at home you might ask? How about directly and electronically effecting edits on documents? Are we using all available tools without having to call on others, for example, to capture information on name cards, travel arrangements, and so on using pre-defined settings? As leaders, are we taking notes ourselves and including others in meetings when they have something to contribute?

As we think differently about work, such demands on our team wither away. By actively determining what level of work goes to our team and creating and investing in solutions to help them become more efficient, it not only creates time for our team members to think, but also provides them with tangible and relateable ways to view changes.

And we know that innovation starts with the desire for, and acceptance of, change.

These actions, while seemingly insignificant, help our team members to be comfortable and confident with change, and what innovation and disruption bring. More importantly, we show that we care deeply about how our team members go about doing their work and this dispels the fear that is often associated with change.

Is there a different way to lead the innovation drive amid uncertainty?

Most leadership qualities are enduringly relevant, despite changing circumstances. Maintaining an empowering leadership style is one such quality that allows new ideas to flourish.

With innovation, it is also about encouraging our teams "to do first and ask for forgiveness later".

Such freedom is possible when organisational goals are well understood and when processes within the organisation are encouraged to be constantly disrupted, innovated and improved upon.

Beyond empowerment, it is about accepting that mistakes are inevitable, even necessary, and reflecting this acceptance consistently in how mistakes are managed, and how learning arises from mistakes being embraced in the workplace.

A different way to lead is not to just share but to incessantly volunteer information to your team. Leaders usually have better access to information that help us do our jobs, and if we want and expect our teams to excel in what they do and take the plunge to innovate, we need to empower them with the knowledge they need. Not just knowledge about the business and clients, but the broader knowledge of global and regional developments.

Often, areas of development that we see in others are not weakness but strengths. Drawing on these strengths, we can help direct our teams to be confident in applying their strengths to innovate. Another leadership trait that is useful to drive innovation is the ability to ask the right questions to stimulate creative discussions.

How do individual business leaders support the organisation to innovate?

As individual business leaders/managers, we have all experienced organisational inertia. Let's be honest about the readiness of our organisations to embrace innovation - are we ready to disrupt our own organisational culture to let innovation emerge? As management, are we displaying honesty and courage when evaluating between embedding innovation hotbeds throughout the organisation and creating an independent innovation entity that is outside of the traditional management structure?

Innovation from within is also about leveraging existing talent management and new business initiative platforms, and then using these platforms to create immediate innovation hotbeds to drive change. As individual business leaders/managers, we can volunteer to take these platforms on.

There are tools to draw on to stimulate innovation such as running innovation challenges, hackcelerator programmes or the creation of "Junior Boards" - a committee of junior employees comprising elected representatives voted into office and empowered to execute new ideas within organisations.


In closing, beyond our role to think of our organisations, there is also the real and immediate impact of the disruption enabled by technology and data - what are future jobs going to be like and how do we prepare our teams, ourselves and the next generation of the workforce for this change?

By being open and comfortable with change, we have a role to engage in such conversations with society at large. On such issues, we have to collaborate and seek common ground among us to innovate collectively.

Business leaders are not necessarily innovators. But, if we are good people managers, we can nevertheless create an environment where innovation thrives. There is a place for both groups of business leaders in society, working collectively for the good of all.

  • The writer is markets leader at PwC Singapore