Does your company’s innovation end with you?

By Heinan Landa Heinan_landa

If ever a leader built a company in his own image, it was Steve Jobs. Endlessly innovative, bold and distinct, Jobs and Apple played by their own rules and created a unique culture that is the raging yin to the buttoned-down Microsoft’s yang.

Yet now, even as I type these words, as sure as “iPhone” has become synonymous with “smart phone,” the question hangs in the air: Will Apple’s culture of innovation disappear without its leader? The answer to this question lies within the answer to another question: Did Steve Jobs foster a culture of innovation within Apple by injecting his spirit of creativity throughout the organization? Or was he Apple’s driving innovator? The future of Apple will provide us with the answer.

As CEO of a technology management company, however, this got me thinking. How can one, as a leader, foster a culture of innovation throughout the company that is independent of management? Two things came to mind: people and practices. Remember the DISC profiles? The acronym that stands for Dominance, Influence, Steadiness and Compliance is a measure of the mixture of personality types that comprise a successful organization or team. For a company to thrive, it must have a variety of these personalities – employees who innovate and create, those who advance those ideas to the next stage, staff members who refine the ideas further (types of innovators themselves) and those who execute and implement these ideas. In organizations with a strong mix of these profiles, there is a type of dynamic tension that stimulates questions, discussions and, ultimately, innovation.

Secondly, there must be an environment that is conducive to new idea expression and exploration for all of these personality profiles. The goal is to find that right mix of talented people who feel comfortable openly contributing to the advancement of your organization. Below are five things that we do at Optimal Networks to ensure that our culture of innovation is not leadership-dependent:

Allow everyone to speak their minds: You never know where the next great idea will come from. By creating an environment in which people are encouraged to share their ideas, much like in a brainstorming session, creativity flows.

Don’t add on: As a leader, don’t feel compelled to take every idea and put your personal spin on it. This is the famous, “That is a good idea, but what if we…” This leadership add-on deflates the originator of the idea and makes him or her far less likely to contribute in the future.

Elders last: In meetings, let the least senior people give their ideas first so that they’re not intimidated into reciting back the thoughts of your executives or silenced by the more senior ideas.

Embrace the healthy debate: Don’t be afraid of a little friction. When people have strong ideas and opinions, emotions run high. This passion can be used to fuel creativity! While you don’t want an atmosphere of conflict and rancor, there’s absolutely nothing innovative about a culture of yes-men and women.

Avoid the “Not Invented Here” attitude: Many organizations are trapped in narcissism, meaning that they think that if an idea did not originate within the organization, then it is automatically not a good idea. Many innovations are simply the advancements of someone else’s ideas. As different as they were, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates needed each other and spurred each other on: Genius doesn’t live in a vacuum.

While only time will tell what happens to Apple in the future, Steve Jobs was a true visionary. His loss is felt deeply, but my guess is that, as a leader, he understood the importance of dispersing an innovative culture, injecting it into the DNA of the company he created. It’s a lesson from which we can all learn. After all, as CEOs, a large part of our legacies will be the future of the organizations we founded once we are gone. CEO

Heinan Landa is CEO of Optimal Networks, a Rockville, MD-based technology support, management and consulting company. www.optimalnetworks.com. Contact us at editorial@smartceo.com.

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