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How Human-Centric Leadership Unleashes Value from Innovation in Today’s Volatile World

Leaders, take note: innovation has more to do with humans than with technology. G. K. Noon was one of Britain’s most successful Asia-born entrepreneurs. Arriving in the United Kingdom in 1964 with comparatively little possessions, he pioneered authentic chilled microwavable Indian food distributed through major British supermarket chains such as Sainsbury and Waitrose. In doing so, he changed British eating habits. By using Italian food preparation technology used for charcuterie, he was able to mass-produce the Indian delicacy chicken tikka, making it more popular in Britain than fish and chips. When he died of cancer in 2015, his personal fortune was worth £65 million.

When interviewed in 1997, Noon explained that his drive to innovate came from an intellectual curiosity inspired by his love of learning. Reading biographies of such international statesmen as Winston Churchill, he came to understand the importance of tenacity and of learning from failure. From Hollywood blockbusters such as Titanic, he learned about the art of the possible.

“I felt that if directors like James Cameron could produce such extraordinary special effects on the cinema screen, what possibilities might be open to someone like me using food preparation technology in the same way?”

Noon made it a point of principle to inspire his colleagues and employees with the same sense of wonder and curiosity. Noon’s story vividly illustrates that innovation is not just about new technologies. Innovation does not happen without the humans who animate and own it. Hence, it involves psychology and sociology. Individuals need to be motivated intrinsically — which is, in other words, the psychological dimension of innovation. They also need to come together into empowered teams with strong relationships and real conversations — which is the sociological dimension of motivation (the definition of which we’re stretching somewhat here, but you get the point).

This last point is worth stressing. Innovation is a collective effort. Drawing on Noon’s source of inspiration, successful blockbusters such as Titanic and Alien do not just need innovative directors. They need creative and inspired actors, set designers, script writers, photographers, costume designers, and casters, all of whom share in and respond to the same innovative spirit and vision.

The originator of any innovative idea, the “spark,” needs people to build on the idea and make it real. They include: the “shapers” who inform, advise, and support the creative process; the “sounding boards” who psychologically or financially support the idea in the organization; and the “sponsors” who contribute to realizing the project’s unique aims. For the creative spirit to succeed, then, it must engulf the entire organization. What the inventor Thomas Edison said about genius goes for innovation as well: it is “1 percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration.”

Unleashing this human potential requires a new kind of leadership, needed more than ever in today’s turbulent times: authentic, generative, and, like that pioneered by Noon, grounded in a love of learning. Employees at all levels need to feel psychologically safe to take risks and experiment with a license to risk failure—as long as they learn from it.

Fundamentally, innovation converts knowledge and inspiration into a new value. This value benefits consumers and customers, without whom you don’t have a business; stakeholders, without whom your business is insupportable; and society, without which your business is not sustainable. And, of course, innovation should create value for the company itself. Otherwise, why are you doing business at all?

Innovative minds explore the need to create and capture new value across these dimensions and share inspiration and actionable insights for business leaders to tap into along the journey — a journey that will help them create and leverage their own cultures of innovation.

The need for such innovation is urgent in this time of uncertainty. Companies need to tap into the new knowledge that is emerging from the present turbulence or be left in the lurch. Remember your physics class: “Relative to an object that moves forward, if you stand still, you fall behind.” It’s a lesson that affects us all. Let’s explore this new kind of leadership needed to survive, or even thrive in some more detail.

Introducing generative leadership

“By definition, you cannot know everything in uncertain environments – the days of Renaissance man or woman are long gone. Management teams need to find individuals with different thinking paradigms who will challenge their assumptions and habitual thought patterns. The stuff of leadership is to recognize, ascribe, value, and integrate these new ideas in such a way that people in the workplace act on them. In a sense, it is a process of developing a narrative about the future, having a viable story that employees can believe and want a part of.”

This senior executive officer of a US government agency, interviewed in 2009 at the height of the last financial crisis by one of the authors of this publication by The Economist, gave notice that a new style of leadership is needed in a bewildering economic climate.

In military circles, this climate became known as VUCA, a diagnosis developed by the US Army to define the situation and challenges it faced in the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts. The acronym stands for:

  • Volatility: the nature and dynamics of change and its speed and catalysts.
  • Uncertainty: the lack of predictability, the prospects of surprise and the sense and understanding of issues and events. Complexity: the multiplex of forces, the confounding of issues, no cause-and-effect chain and the confusion that surrounds us.
  • Ambiguity: the haziness of reality, the potential for misreads, the mixed meaning of conditions and causeand- effect confusion.

The VUCA formula made the jump into the business world and gained traction in describing the combination of rapid technological progress and unlimited connectivity, which has resulted in an explosion of data. If managed well, by you or your competitors, these can be translated into information, then knowledge and from there, to new opportunities.

The onset of the pandemic has magnified the VUCA environment tenfold – what we call “VUCA on Steroids”. It sets a stage for a new philosophy of leadership that empowers the individual to create and foster the continuous innovation that is the only possible response to the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity that surrounds us.

In this new approach, the leader is no longer the one who has the answers. “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in mouth”, Mike Tyson said famously. Instead, solutions to the problems and challenges we all face need to be found by being purposefully agile or, to put it another way, “doing things to learn what to do”, as Peter Simms states in his insightful work Small Bets.

To set one up for this new world of experimentation, learning, and, when successful, scaling requires what we call “generative leadership.”

The generative nature of leadership creates a virtuous circle in which leaders generate value through innovation supported by knowledge through learning and inspiration through creativity.

All of this hinges on “generating” their employees’ and their stakeholders’ excitement to live the purpose and contribute to the narrative they lead. The way forward is through a culture of learning in which one’s heart and gut counts as much as one’s intellectual prowess. In this sense, a little humility and vulnerability become as important as heroism and vigor.

Are you a generative leader ready to succeed into the future?

Adapted from articles co-written with Michel Syrett and initially published by The Conference Board, Inc.

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