5 Ways Leaders Can Generate More Innovation

In the book the 8th Habit, business author Stephen Covey recounted a story told to him by Bill Marriott, founder of the Marriott hotel chain. Bill told Stephen that his son John was working in a hotel that Marriott had just acquired. John went into the hotel kitchen and asked one of the kitchen staff “We’ve got this problem out front – what do you think we should do?” “Tears came to the eyes of this worker as he answered, ‘I’ve worked with this old company for twenty years, and no one has ever once asked me my opinion about anything.’ ”

“Innovation” is such a buzzword in today’s corporate value statements. Executives seem to spend a lot of time talking about the new ‘systems’ they have developed to tap into the collective brain-power of their entire workforce. Perhaps they have overlooked the most obvious system of all.

Self-Test – Are You a ‘Know-It-All’ Manager?

Managers may ask for other people’s ideas, but it is fairly rare that they’ll really listen and act to adopt them. “But I ask my people what they are thinking all the time” I often hear managers say. It’s how managers respond to their people’s feedback that indicates whether the manager is actually receptive to it. Does the manager:

a) launch into a thorough explanation of why their suggestion won’t work;
b) forcefully defend his previously stated position;
c) say “Thanks for the suggestion. Anyone else have any ideas?”; or
d) say “Sounds like an interesting idea. I especially like that you have thought of some of the potential obstacles. How will it work if ______ happens?”

Any response that doesn’t resemble answer “d” is going to shut people down, eliminating their creativity and innovation, as well as the creativity and innovation of anyone else who hears about the incident.  Unfortunately, responses a, b and c are the most likely responses a worker will hear.  A recent literature review I conducted revealed that managerial arrogance is one of the most common leadership dysfunctions cited by workers.

How to increase employee engagement and innovation at the same time.

Tip #1. Use these four words liberally: “What do you think?” Don’t reserve them for only trivial items. You should be hiring people who know more about their job than you do. Take advantage of that. If you don’t, your most talented people will leave.

Tip #2. Ask first, listen carefully, then state your opinion after due consideration. The power imbalance between managers and their subordinates creates the effect of using a megaphone when a manager speaks. The result is that the manager’s opinions are usually interpreted as directives, and signals the end of debate. Thoughtful managers understand this and reserve their opinion until others have safely offered theirs.

Tip #3. Validate other people’s ideas. Show that you were listening by remarking on positive things in the suggestion. If you don’t validate their contribution in some way, they will hear “That was a pretty lame suggestion – don’t bother commenting next time.” Even if you don’t think theirs is a good idea, validate it in some way, and then ask, don’t tell, them if their idea will work given the issues you have identified. Once they’ve had a chance to provide further explanation, thank them for their input and, as needed, explain later why you need their support taking a different approach.

Tip #4. Temper your defense of your position. Remember, you’re speaking with a megaphone. Advocate for the course of action you believe is best, but remember to tone it down when there is a power imbalance in your favour.

Tip #5. Hold a position, but don’t let it hold you. Know when to let go of your position in favour of a better one.


For more information on this topic, check out the FREE Leadership Blind Spots Self-Evaluation.


2 Responses

  1. I’m not sure about point #1 ie ” I should be hiring a person who knows more about their job than you do. When we hire a receptions they may know how to answer the phone and type letters but I would expect they would need training on the job and that could come from me since I will know more about what I want them to do than they do just coming into the organization.

    1. Thanks John for your comment. Generally speaking, managers hire people for two reasons:
      1) so that the manager can focus on the areas of the business where they can have the most impact, and
      2) so that the people they hire will do a better job than the manager on the things the manager doesn’t have time to do.

      On the job training for new employees is a must, no matter how talented they may be. But once they are up to speed, they should be able to do their job better than you can. If not, they are in the wrong job.

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