Mobilizing your managers towards innovation

Based on How to promote managers’ innovative behavior at work: Individual factors and perceptions by Burcu Kör, Ingrid Wakkee, and Peter van der Sijde, in Technovation (2021).

Picture this: You’re an executive at a big corporation in the service industry. Your company’s performance has been historically strong, with minimal players in the field. But after years of stability, you begin to notice a shift in the market. 

Globalization and digitalization have allowed new players to penetrate the field. Suddenly, your customer base is being replaced by a new and tech-savvy generation with evolving needs. Your industry has been disrupted, and you must adapt quickly if you want to retain market share. 

This scenario is not hypothetical. 

From Kodak to Blockbuster, we’ve seen corporate juggernauts fall at the hands of digitally savvy startups time and time again. 

This phenomenon, known as Industry 4.0, has democratized service delivery and shattered barriers to entry through the power of Information and Communications Technology (ICT).  As a result, incumbent companies are forced to think more like startups to survive.

Managers as innovation leaders

Research has shown that corporate innovation and digital transformation should be interactive and iterative, rather than stemming from just one source. 

In other words, executives who find themselves facing the threat of startup competitors should not take a top-down approach and impose ostensibly innovative practices among their employees. 

Rather, it is more effective to leverage middle-level human resources as part of a wider network of dynamic capabilities. 

Managers are critical assets in promoting corporate innovation, as they have the power to influence company culture and create environments that are conducive for ideation. 

They serve as intermediaries between the top executives and employees of all levels, making them the key to bringing the C-Suite’s vision and ideas to life. 

What makes managers effective catalysts for innovation? 

Studies suggest that it is their innovative behaviors and ability to outwardly translate these behaviors into their leadership. 

According to researchers, Individual-level Innovative Behavior (IIB) is how corporate innovation manifests itself through the “introduction and application of new ideas, products, processes, and procedures to a person’s work role, work unit, or organization.” 

Thus, executives who wish to future-proof their companies in a VUCA world must leverage their manager’s IIB in order to generate ideas to meet new consumer demands.

Previous research has recognized that IIB is at the “heart of all organizational innovation.” 

In a study on IIB, researchers offered three methods on how to promote IIB among managers.

1. Use the Power of Perception

If you want to increase your managers’ innovative behavior, start with their perceptions. 

Managers’ innovation thrives in work environments that make them feel safe and supported in generating novel ideas. Such an environment typically entails the absence of fear of punishment, even when such ideas fail to immediately generate returns for the company. 

Innovation is an iterative process that heavily involves experimentation and failure, so if the fear of reprimand weighs heavily on managers, they will altogether restrict their innovative behaviors, thereby diminishing organizational innovation.

The adoption of novel and more efficient company policies, or leveraging digital platforms of communication can increase a manager’s innovative behavior. 

So, the next time your company does strategic planning, try focusing on ways of fostering an environment that is open to innovation, as well as adopting even small changes to show a willingness to innovate. These will trickle down to your managers, and lead to favorable results.

2. Look for Self-Leaders

Various selection criteria are employed in the hiring or promotion of managerial employees. However, one such criterion which could promote innovation is self-leadership. 

Self-leadership is the ability to manage oneself in order to fulfill a task that is not naturally rewarding. As opposed to leading others, self-leadership involves managing and motivating oneself through different techniques to attain a goal. 

The self-leadership techniques shown to improve managers’ IIB involve minimizing ineffective behaviors and maximizing effective ones. These include self-observation, self-goal setting, self-reward, and self-punishment.

Other techniques that are beneficial have the goal of making a task seem more rewarding and motivating, as well as suppressing negative task-related issues. 

By focusing on the rewards rather than the rigors of a task, managers can achieve a sense of competence and self-fulfillment which are ideal in coming up with new and disruptive ideas.

Thus, be on the lookout for individuals who possess these qualities the next time your company selects a manager. Furthermore, your employee could also benefit from the integration of self-leadership techniques during skills-building and training programs from the company.

3. Embrace Risk

One of the biggest hindrances to innovation is the reluctance to take risks. As consumer behavior rapidly changes, the degree of innovation necessary for firms to keep up rises, and this almost always involves taking risks. 

Too many companies have developed false senses of security, leading them to think that risk is unnecessary. However, we now live in a VUCA world where unpredictability is inevitable. Thus, firms must follow suit. 

Research suggests that when managers find that their companies prioritize coming up with new ideas, and are willing to back those ideas with the necessary resources, they become more motivated and have a more positive outlook. 

One such way for firms to take risks is engaging in corporate venture capital (CVC). CVC is when companies directly invest corporate funds into startups. 

This practice comes with its own set of risks but often ends up benefitting the firm through the startup’s success.

So if you want to encourage your managers to be more innovative, try showing them that your company values taking risks and challenging norms. In effect, they’ll be more empowered to engage in risks of their own, ideate solutions, and express these solutions despite the fear of failure.

When it comes to innovation, many top executives think of advanced technology, convoluted systems, and ingenious business models, but as research has shown, the path towards innovation is paved with good HR management. 

Equip your managers with the skills they need to lead your innovation initiatives to success.

Learn more about our innovation learning programs by clicking here.