Active Innovation Leadership: What if Your Organization Isn’t Loaded With Geniuses Like Steve Jobs?

The bad news is that there are only very few people in the Steve Jobs genius category to go around. The good news? The rest of us.

Most of us are far more innovative than we give ourselves credit for. And more good news? In my experience, it is teachable and learnable.

I was inspired to write 63 Innovation Nuggets for Aspiring Innovators because throughout my career I observed many different people who could stretch themselves beyond their self-perceived limitations and attain a far greater level of innovation than they initially thought they could.

I also observed that innovation is a collective we thing, not just a singular I thing. We need to create and surround ourselves with a positive environment — and learn from one another.

Whether you are a “top down” leader or a “middle up” initiator, a practical way to get started is to test yourself, then help lead your organization toward overcoming what we call “thinkers cramp” in order to attain greater innovation.

It can start with the “Art of Observing,” which is Nugget No. 19 in the book and followed by an anecdote to underscore its practicality and help it come alive:

Nugget 19. Observing as an Art

Most successful innovators have a keen sense of observation.

The good news is that it’s an art, and it can be improved at almost any level.

Take time out. Put yourself in listen and receive mode.

Look around you. Make time to do this when you are alone. Observe what is innovative. Make notes.

Keep a list of innovations you’ve observed.

Set the goal of at least one “observation exercise” per day.

Review your list each week. Have the quality of your observations improved over time?

Ask a like-minded friend or business colleague to try this exercise and compare notes. You’ll have fun and get better at observing.

Innovation is all around us. Look for it.

All of us can do this. And it improves with practice.

Anecdote: Observing as an Art

Late in my career, I began testing a hypothesis about how I observed innovation and found that I had been doing it all along. I just didn’t write down my observations.

When you have the opportunity, observe “line management” while standing in an “I” formation in front of an ATM machine at a bank. Not too many years ago, we would line up in three separate lines in front of each one only to be frustrated by choosing the wrong line and watch the next one move faster. In Russia, by contrast, I observed that they have little respect for lines. Waiting for service in a grocery store or in a passport line, people would butt in and move to the front. Quietly observe the innovation around us. What do we really see and take in?

Once I made a point to write my observations down, I found that they came even easier. In fact, my observations got better. They got deeper, more imaginative. It was so revealing that I tried it on my first group of MBA students.

Remarkably, within two to three weeks, nearly all of the students’ abilities to make and record their observations improved. I could see their growing self-confidence in stretching themselves — especially when I had them bring their observations to class to share with everyone. By the end of each school term, virtually 100 percent “got it.” Year after year.

Even more impressive was when certain students began making the connections from these observations to their own powers of innovation. We would use these “transfers” of observations in class to outright innovations. The students would learn from one another — not just from me.

This informal experiment reaffirmed my belief that observing innovation is in fact teachable and learnable. The sample size of nearly 500 students from as many as 30 different countries is fairly reliable, especially with the high percentage of accomplishment.

Observe innovation around you. Look for it. Record it.

Of course, it goes on from here. After learning to better observe, we discuss how to transfer those observations of success and take them across the organization, and different categories, and industries, and eventually countries. Nugget No. 23 in the book focuses on transferring innovations:

Nugget 23. Transferring Innovations.

It’s one thing to have the skill to observe innovation around us.

It’s another thing to have the skill to transfer it from one category, industry or situation to another.

It’s using analogies. It’s using the expression “If this, then that.”

Practice it. Look for innovation and success in one category and observe how it’s been transferred to another.

Then, take your list of original observations and imagine how it can be transferred to another category. Practice this art.

Rise up to 30,000 feet (big picture thinking) with an observation and conceptualize it. At a high level, it’s often easier to see a transferable quality.

Surprisingly few innovations are completely original. Often, there is some transfer across from another innovation.

Practice makes perfect.

Anecdote: Transferring Innovations

It is fairly easy to find examples in which an innovation in one place inspired innovation in another. The hospitality industry is famous for continually innovating and reinventing itself.

A finer hotel will typically stage an experience for its guests. At a Ritz-Carlton, for example, each lobby is designed to create an impression, and staff are purposefully trained to provide a specific experience for its high-end customers. For example, if a guest asks where the pool is, he or she is accompanied, not just directed, to the pool, or point of resolution. The employee “owns” the issue.

At other hotels, there may be a theme running through the entire property, reflecting the highlights of its location or culture. At a Disney hotel, for instance, the theme might be “family fun and friendly.” Again, staff are trained to be a part of the stage and help create a particular experience for their guests.

Similarly, when you walk through the door at the McLean Hardware in McLean, Virginia, a representative will greet you, make sure any questions you have are being addressed and accompany you to the section of the store where the product you are looking for is located.

The hardware employee will engage you in dialogue to be sure he or she understands your need or project and might even offer a few handy tips. If it is very specialized, the employee may ask a colleague to join in the conversation to be sure you get the best advice possible.

Transferring innovations. Hotel to hardware. It works. Look for it.

Practice it.

This is what  innovative learning  can be all about — discovering these practical, experience-proven nuggets and making them your own.

So what is in this for rising innovation leaders?

At the top of an organization, it is important to realize that many employees throughout the organization possess this capability and that it’s simply a matter of encouraging, training and unlocking it.

From the middle of organization, it is important to realize that the very top leadership must have internal innovation, ideally key-customer driven innovation. No longer can organizations rely on acquisitions to sustain growth — most deals simply don’t work out as touted and hoped for. Those in the middle should see the need for internal innovation as an opportunity to access top leadership by taking the initiative to generate ideas and execute them.

This becomes the common thread and source of bonding from the “top down” and “middle up” leadership in almost any size organization and in almost every industry.

The genius is there, sometimes latent, but it can be encouraged, discovered and taught.

Make this a resolution: Self-discover your innovative genius and bring it to your organization.

The above post excerpts 63 Innovation Nuggets for Aspiring Innovators (Innovation Etc. Publishing Company), by George E.L. Barbee (MBA ’67). For more information, please visit www.InnovationNuggets.com.

About the Faculty

George E.L. Barbee

Barbee’s 45-year innovative business career took him across 40 countries. As an entrepreneur, he founded three companies and worked with a number of Fortune 100 companies, including Gillette, IBM, GE, PricewaterhouseCoopers and PepsiCo. The common thread in his small and large company experience, as well as the last 15 years... Learn More