Innovation Is Essential. But Are Your Best and Brightest Killing It?

Photo: Shutterstock/ Africa Studio

Photo: Shutterstock/ Africa Studio

For organizations today innovation is critical. Without it they cannot solve their toughest problems and remain competitive. To ensure this happens, leaders depend upon their top performers, their best and brightest. 

Yet these days business has grown complex, super-fast, and hyper-connected. And in this world, top performers may actually be doing more to hurt innovation than helping it.

Unfortunately, many leaders, still employing an industrial-era mindset, aren’t able to recognize this. They can’t see that innovation no longer comes from innovative individuals. As the best companies are now showing us, it comes from innovative cultures.

But recognizing this and letting go of industrial-era mindsets and is not easy. In my own research, I found that innovative companies had to recognize at least three key shifts:

  • The Changing Face of Innovation
  • The Evolving Role of Top Performers, and
  • The Shifting Demands of Leading Innovation.

The Changing Face of Innovation

Digital technology has had a big impact on how organizations approach complex problem-solving. Such problems are often contextual and involve more information than ever before. Under such conditions, it is impossible for one person to comprehend all that is going on.

Often the knowledge needed to solve complex problems is dispersed throughout vast electronic networks. Hence, the process of generating innovative insight is dispersed throughout vast human networks.

Thus, innovation–once the exclusive domain of elite problem-solvers–is now a collaborative process involving many.

For many organizations the impact of this shift has been monumental. For instance, David Weinberger has pointed out that “as knowledge becomes networked, the smartest person in the room…is the room itself.”

The Evolving Role of Top Performers

But what does all this mean for top performers (a.k.a. The long-considered the go-to people for tackling the organization’s toughest problems)? For many top performers, the shift toward collaborative may not be so smooth.

In 2015 Fast Company reported that most top performers excel because they have drive and high standards. Yet these same traits often mean that top performers “are not acclimated to being part of a team.”

But, as Chris Argyris found, one thing top performers are acclimated to is winning. Hence, they rarely had to learn from their mistakes or integrate a different point of view.

As Argyris reported:
because [top performers] have rarely failed, they have never learned how to learn from failure. So, whenever their…strategies go wrong, they become defensive, screen out criticism, and put the ‘‘blame’’ on anyone and everyone but themselves.

But that’s not all. Many companies encourage such bad sportsmanship by showering top performers with status and reputation.

So it is easy to see why people are afraid to voice a contradictory observation or insight.

But my purpose is not to launch a wholesale indictment of all elite performers. Often these individuals are quite humble and collaborative. My point is to show that how many companies today unconsciously undermine their own drive to be more innovative.

And this is exactly why leadership is so important.

The Shifting Demands of Leading Innovation

During my Ph.D. I researched how innovation happened under conditions of chaos and disruption. I looked closely at how teams came up with innovative solutions even though they were working in chaotic conditions.

The findings shocked me. Of the four key variables, none had to do with skill level, expertise, training, or resources. Instead, all were related to the quality of the relationships between team members. And the most influential of the four, by far, was the level of psychological safety. 

Psychological safety is the sense that people feel safe to be themselves. They feel that it is safe to be vulnerable, admit mistakes, and share unpopular views without fear of ridicule or judgment.

Many leaders have not yet heard of this term, but they soon will. More and more organizational research now shows that innovation and effectiveness depend on it.

Google is, without a doubt, one of the most innovative companies around. In a recent study of its own teams, Google found that the key predictor of innovation was psychological safety.

For leaders wishing to develop innovative organizations, these findings hold huge implications. They point to the need to let go of command-and-control practices and create cultures rich in psychological safety.

Top Performers as Innovation Coaches

A lot of this involves working with top performers to help them shift their own thinking. Leaders can encourage them to share the spotlight and use their influence to create a more open and collaborative environment.

Doing so will help create organizations that are truly innovative. These are places where everyone feels that they are a welcome and vital part of the innovation process.