Link to podcast episode: EL 40: 5 Keys to Leading Innovation | with Todd Henry
JESSE LAHEY: Welcome to the show leaders! How do you avoid mediocrity and apathy in the team lead? At many companies today, innovation is the rallying cry but bunting for singles is the everyday ethic. How can you lead a team to be truly innovative? To help us address this question, I am pleased to have back on the show, a previous guest Todd Henry.
Todd is the author of the book The Accidental Creative; How to Be Brilliant at a Moment’s Notice. He regularly speaks at companies and conferences about how to build practices that lead to better ideas.
Todd, welcome back to the Engaging Leader Podcast.
TODD HENRY: Thanks Jesse! It’s good to be here.
JESSE LAHEY: Why would you say it’s important for a manager or leader to think about and understand the dynamics of creativity?
TODD: As a leader, one of the primary functions of your job is creative; which is to problem find and to define reality for your team. I think a lot of leaders fall down when they stop thinking about how can I stay ahead of where my team is? How can I clarify my expectations for the team by defining reality for them; which means you have to go out ahead of them; which means you’re venturing directly in to uncertainty and trying to find problems and solve them ahead of your team; which is the definition of creativity.
For leaders, not only do you have to be tapped in to your ability to think clearly and to think creatively about the problems that aren’t even on your teams radar yet but you also have to be aware of how those dynamics function so you can better structure your team and structure your expectations to set your team up for success
JESSE: A lot of companies today talk about the importance of being innovative. In a lot of companies there’s a danger of assuming that innovation happens in the R and D department. Should a manager or a leader make it a priority to teach their team to view themselves as creatives? In any part of the company. Not just R and D
TODD: Absolutely. No question about it. This is the real danger that a lot of companies have fallen in to over the course of time because it’s convenient to do that. A lot of the companies are doing strapping. They’re trying to figure out how do we do more with less. They’re realizing oh we haven’t been focused on trying to unleash the full potential of the people we’ve trained, we’ve hired, we’ve put the right place and we’ve not been unleashing their full potential.
We need to be innovating in place basically. We need every single person in the organization to be responsible for finding ways of doing more with less. A lot of times that means process based innovation not product based innovation. When we think about innovation happens in the R and D department, we’re basically talking about product based innovation which means oh we’re going to go out with some new thing. We’re going to take the market and that’s going to be the value our company adds and that’s going to filter down through the ranks.
But a lot of the innovation, the pressure to innovate, that I’m seeing in organizations, now especially, is processed innovations. Which means, how can we do more with less? How can we process the organization to change the way it thinks about how it operates so we can be more effective in going to market?
That’s not the kind of innovation that’s been on the radar of companies when times are good. Now that times are lean, a lot of leaders are feeling the pressure to unleash more of their big and capacity in the organization. Again, a lot of that is processed innovation.
JESSE: Let’s say you lead a team in the finance department. I think we agree it would be great if they were more creative. Can creativity truly be influenced?
TODD: Absolutely it can be influenced. We’re talking about leadership primarily in this episode and I think it’s your job as a leader to make sure you’re providing the structure for your team that will enable them to have predictable grounds to play on. That’s hard to do. It’s really hard to do. But there are specific things. If’ it’s okay, I’d love to go in to specific principals as leaders that we can utilize.
The first I call Be a Laser not Lighthouse. What I mean by that is we tend to, as leaders, focus on what we want our team not to do. Don’t go here. Don’t go there. Don’t go here. Don’t go there. That’s what the lighthouse does. A lighthouse shows you where not to go. If you go over here, you’re going to hit the rocks.
In a create on demand environment, we need leaders to be lasers. We need them to be hyper focused. We need them to be pointing the direction that we need to be going. People need something certain to latch on to in the midst of uncertainty.
As a leader, you need to provide that. You need to define reality for your team. You need to help them understand what the real risks are; what the real expectations are and make sure they understand with crystal, clear, laser like focus: Here’s what I expect of you. They’re dealing with enough uncertainty in their job. You want them to have enough structure to be able to get messy in their work. You have to define reality for them in that way.
The second thing I would say is there’s a misunderstanding about what a healthy team is; especially in a creative environment. I think a lot of people tend to confuse passiveness and amiability with health on a team. Some of the most healthy teams I’ve been around have been teams where people are fighting, teams where people are arguing, they’re constantly grappling with one another and trying to get somebody to move to their point of view. But at the end of the day they line up behind whatever decision is made and they all work as hard as they can to execute it. I always tell leaders to encourage dissent and foster discontent on your teams. As a leader, you need to be encouraging dissent. You want people arguing ferociously for their point of view. You want people fighting for what they believe in. If you’ve done a good job of hiring, you want to get the best out of those people. Hopefully you’re hiring for those divergent points of view as well.
By foster discontent, don’t let your team fall in to this mode of we’re pretty good at what we do. Instead, move the bar. Tell them hey, we’re good for this but here’s where we’re going. To be good at this, we’re going to really have to up our game. Constantly foster that discontent within your team so they feel there’s something to strive for. Otherwise we tend to fall in to mediocrity and apathy on our teams.
The third principal is you have to defend your team to the death. The fastest way to permanently hit failure as a creative leader is to sell out your team. Period. It doesn’t matter what you do after that. You can defend them all you want after that but if you sell them out once they’re not going to trust you again. You have to take the most arrows as the leader; which means you have to stand up and defe3nd your team to the death. If a decision is made and you’re the leader, it’s your decision. I don’t care who made the decision. If you put them in place, you hired the people. It’s your decision. You have to defend your team to the death as a leader.
It’s important to provide that safe ground for them to take risks and try things.
The fourth thing, sometimes I call it think backward forward because people don’t like the way I normally talk about it but I’ll talk about it the way I normally talk about it. Remember the spilled blood. There are people on your team who have poured blood, sweat and tears in to their work. They have sacrificed a lot to contribute to the team.
A lot of times there’s a what have you done for me lately mindset within organizations. When you do this it’s incredibly demotivating to the people on your team. You have to remember the spilled blood. Even if someone falls short temporarily, in the short term, you have to remember what that person has contributed over time and not cheapen their sacrifice because they fell short on one project. That’s the quickest way to demotivate someone and have them shrink back and not contribute what they’re fully capable of contributing.
Finally, the last thing I would say is clarity always trumps certainty. You’re never going to be certain as a leader and you’re not going to have all the answers; especially if you’re leading creative teams. You’re never going to know the right thing but you have to be crystal clear about what you expect from your team.
We talk about project strategy versus creative strategy. The five W’s of project strategy: Who, What, Where, When, Why. You have to define those with extreme clarity. Here’s who we’re doing it for. Here’s what we’re doing. Here’s why we’re doing it. Here’s when it’s going to happen. Here’s where it’s going to happen. You have to define those things with crystal clarity and be ready at a moment’s notice to define those again if somebody has questions. We 3 may not know how we’re going to do it, the creative strategy, that’s fine. That’s the uncertainty part. But you have to be really clear about your expectations in the face of uncertainty so your team will have that defined structure to play in.
JESSE: So in that case, you may not have certainty in the how; how are we going to do that? That’s something we need to sort through together; but you need to be crystal clear on the Why’s; why are we doing this? Why y is this important? So you can ignite people’s passions.
TODD: Exactly. Again, the defining principal there is you have to be clear even in the face of uncertainty. When you’re unclear about something, it’s going to create anxiety, tension, frustration, dissonance, fear; all of these things are going to emerge in your teams dynamic because they’ll be afraid to try something because they don’t know exactly what you expect of them. You have to be clear about your expectations if you want them to feel the courage to take risks in their own creative process.
JESSE: In episode 38, you and I talked about some strategies and structures that help maximize creativity while maintaining healthy work habits. One structure from your book that you and I haven’t discussed is clustering tasks. What do you mean by that?
TODD: We pay a tasking penalty any time we move from thing to thing. A lot of times people don’t think about that task switching penalty when they structure their time. They may have 10 minutes they’re going to sit down and think about a problem they’re facing or try to come up with an idea but then they get this ping of an email that comes in so they break their focus and respond to an email. Then they go back to thinking about the problem. Then somebody knocks on their door. Whenever we switch back and forth like that, we pay a task switching penalty. Meaning we have to gear back up. We have to get our mind back in that mode. We tend to think if I have the time available then I’m capable of doing something. But the reality is there are all these other factors that have to align in order for us to really effectively do our work.
One of those factors is focus; as we talked about. Most experts would say that any time your focus is broken it can take anywhere from 30 seconds to 2 minutes; some experts say as long as 20 minutes; to regain the focus you had prior to that interruption. What I recommend for folks is if you have deep thinking work you want to do; you want to try to come up with ideas for projects and you really want to focus in on something, block off time to do those largely conceptual tasks all at once rather than trying to bounce back and forth from highly concrete to highly conceptual. Because every time you do that, you pay a task switching penalty.
You’ve probably seen this in your life as well, Jesse. If you’re involved in deep immersive work, you can often bounce from project to project and you’re still in that mode of deep thought. It doesn’t really interrupt the flow of your thought just because you’re switching from subject to subject. But if you are thinking about a problem and then oh I’m going to respond to an email or answer a phone call, it breaks up your vibe. It breaks up your work in such a way that you begin to pay a task switching penalty and you have to gear back up to get back in to your work.
Clustering is all about making sure you are putting all of your conceptual work together and as much of your concrete work together as you can; at least as much as you’re able to do that so you have time blocked off for those highly conceptual tasks.
JESSE: Clustering tasks is a structure that requires having boundaries. Another structure from your book is carving out idea time. That requires boundaries too. As leaders, I think we’re often tempted because we are moving so fast and we are shifting priorities and we’re laser focused on what we need to get done at a moment in time. IT seems like we can run ram shod over the structures that our team would have in place so they can be brilliant at a moment’s notice. Do you have to have conversations with leaders to help them honor the healthy structures their team has?
TODD: Absolutely. I’m glad you bring this up. This is the single biggest problem that exists on teams. We don’t talk to one another. We don’t have conversation. It astounds me. I come in and I lead workshops for teams all the time and I’ll share with them this principal that I call the five conversations. I can’t tell you how often a hand comes up and they say so you’re saying we should talk to one another?
Yes! That’s exactly what I’m saying. It’s amazing to me. We talk about the work. We talk about the things we expect but we don’t talk about how we’re doing the work. We don’t talk about our needs in that space. All of the Meta stuff that surrounds that project, we don’t discuss that. But guess what? That’s where all the great work comes from. It comes from that adjacent possible around the work that we’re actually doing. We talk about everything except for the place where the real value comes from.
We have to be good at having those boundary type conversations with our team. Hey, if somebody on my team says I have nothing left to give, I am completely wiped out; I need to give them the freedom to say that to me without feeling like I’m going to can them tomorrow because they had that conversation with me. If somebody comes to me every week and says they’re completely fried and need to take a couple of days, that’s a totally different conversation we need to have.
But if I put the right people on my team; and by the way, I’m also equipping them and aligning them around the right objectives; I want them to feel the freedom to talk about the work and how they’re doing the work and not just feel like we have this purely mechanical type relationship because that doesn’t serve anybody.
If we’re not being honest with one another, then we’re not going to feel free to engage our work with everything we have. If we’re constantly trying to position and buffer ourselves against any of the consequences of those kinds of honest conversation. So the more we can clear the air of all of that stuff, the better off we’re going to be to be free to actually engage in the work we’re actually being paid to do.
JESSE: Todd, as we wrap up our conversation today, do you have any closing thoughts for us?
TODD: I would like to say, in reference to what we’ve been discussing, be purposeful about your creative process. Don’t take it for granted. Be purposeful about how you structure your life. Be purposeful about focus, relationships, energy, stimuli and hours. I would submit to you that the most lofty goal that you can have as it relates to your life and work is you want it to be prolific; meaning you’re doing a lot of work brilliant; you’re doing good work and healthy and you’re doing it in a sustainable way.
And if you don’t approach it healthy about how you’re doing your work. You’re eventually going to lose the other two–prolific and brilliant— as well because you’re not a machine. You’re not wired to be a machine. And if you try to function like a machine you will find you will crash. You will burn. You will be frustrated. You will be burned out. You will spend the rest of your life in misery. (Laughing)
I’m painting a good [picture for you. Be prolific. Be brilliant. Be healthy. Be purposeful about your creative process. Don’t hold back. We need your contribution. We need you to be how you are.
JESSE: Todd Henry is the author of The Accidental Creative: How to be brilliant at a moment’s notice, and the host of the podcast Accidental Creative and the founder and CEO of a company called Accidental and Creative where he helps creatives and teams be prolific, brilliant and healthy. Todd thanks for joining us today!
TODD: Thanks Jesse!
Link to podcast episode: EL 40: 5 Keys to Leading Innovation | with Todd Henry