Want Better Ideas? Pick a Good Fight.

10/20/2016 10:36 am ET

Executives like to believe that innovation is inspired when a friendly, creative, collaborative team reaches consensus with a minimum of fuss. While you need to respect each other, the rest of those assumptions can actually stop innovation in its tracks. To get better ideas, you need to help your team pick a good fight.

Innovation is not about harmony, especially the false kind so prevalent in organizations that value a “culture of nice”. Innovation is by its very nature messy. To disrupt like Google or Uber or Snapchat or Alibaba, you need an organization deep in ideas and people not afraid to clash and collide. How you manage all that will determine whether the company puts creativity to use.

Innovative leadership encourages unedited ideas, fresh perspectives and vigorous debate. Welcoming ideas creates the laboratory for innovation to flourish. It transforms divisive conflict into a good fight. A good fight means lacing up and duking it out on a fair playing field with a leader who, like a skilled referee, knows when to step in and when to let it go until it’s over.

The paradox of a good fight is that conflict deepens relationships among the team and builds genuine camaraderie. Positive conflict strengthens organizations and drives innovation. People learn they can go to the mat for their ideas and fight fair.

So what do you need to do to become a leader of an innovative team?

What Do Innovation Leaders Do?

In a good fight, the game’s not rigged and anybody has a chance. No idea should be dismissed at the start, and every idea can benefit from the wisdom of the collective whole. And give yourself a break on coming up with ideas yourself. Leaders who are successful in driving innovation aren’t necessarily themselves creative; they simply bring diverse groups together and intentionally leverage and guide collective thinking.

Our research has found innovative leadership tracks closely with qualities of executive presence, which we define as the ability to engage, align, inspire and move people to act. In our research based approach, there are 15 qualities of presence, and we see very high correlations between innovation and humility, interactivity, inclusiveness, resonance, composure and assertiveness.

So what exactly do these innovative leaders do?

They Convene Debates.

Innovative leaders know they don’t have all the answers (humility). They are curious and interested in the ideas of others. As a result, they reach out and bring others in (inclusiveness). These leaders expect team members to be smarter than their own brains. The value team members create, even superstars, is in what they can do together.

They Connect People.

The best promote frequent dialogue (interactivity) that allows iterations of ideas to emerge. These leaders also know how to read the room. When people are together, these leaders are attuned to the thoughts and feelings of others (resonance) and able to surface issues.

They Encourage Conflict.

Innovative leaders don’t expect meetings to be placid. They create a safe and productive context for exploration. They believe people can disagree without being disagreeable (assertiveness). They encourage lively debate and promote positive conflict.

They Model Composure.

In times of change and challenge, composure (cool in a crisis) creates stability when others are flustered. They help clarify everyone’s thinking and act with confidence in the face of uncertainty.

Do you need to be creative?

One of the greatest misconceptions about leading innovation is that you need to be creative. Being an innovative leader is definitely not about being the smartest or most creative person in the room. Vision (the ability to spot industry trends and “be strategic”) didn’t make much difference when we looked at our data. What matters more is leveraging other people’s diverse perspectives and getting the best from the whole.

Getting Into the Ring

Here are three ways to get started and up your innovation game.

1. Mix it up! Bring together people with diverse points of view and make it clear you expect people to share their perspectives. You want a healthy mix of ideas to stimulate lots of lateral thinking.

2. Keep it clean! Establish and enforce ground rules that help people to engage productively. Conflict in ideas is the whole point. Conflict between people is a foul!

3. Have a rematch! Innovation isn’t one and done. To get great ideas, you need lots of ideas. Bring people together often. When a great idea emerges, be sure to nurture it along, but don’t let that interrupt your process.

About the Authors

Andy Atkins is a Principal and consultant with Bates, a firm that advises senior executives in driving strategy with better communication. He’s served as Chief Innovation Officer for a collaboration consulting firm and was named a Top 100 Thought Leader in Workplace Trust in both 2014 and 2015.

Suzanne Bates is CEO of Bates, whose clients include top executives in major brand global companies. The firm’s mission is to help leaders shape the world. She is one of the world’s top experts on executive presence and influence. She’s published four books including the new All the Leader You Can Be (McGraw Hill 2016). For more information go to www.alltheleaderbook.com.

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