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What makes a leader innovative?

Author: Martin Stewart Weeks
Published Date: 21 May 2014

In a recent essay published ahead of the SIX Summer School in Vancouver, Martin Stewart Weeks explores how innovation can be used to change systems and shift cultures. He emphasises 4 essential traits that must be embraced by innovators to create real and sustainable change within organisations and systems: intention, permission, performance and play.

  • Deliberate and targeted intention:

An obsessive focus on innovating the‘thing’ - aprocess, a service, a product - is both necessary andlegitimate. But the point, in the end, is not just to do the new thing, but to make the new thing a way of creating momentum and forcing change within institutions and systems in such a way that makes the new thing both worthwhile and potent.

  • Permission

No culture orsystem gets changed unless someone, somewhere hasthe permission to even try. Sometimes that permission is given, sometimes it is stolen, sometimes it is assumed and, often, it turns up later when change has already started, sparked usually by courageous and even maverick people who will not, or cannot wait.

Innovating whole cultures and systems can be done and is being done. It takes great skill and, moreimportantly, great passion and courage. My own view is that too many of the prevailing cultures in the broader systems of public work in government,business and civil society are increasingly hostile to passion and courage, despite increasingly louder calls for innovation. Generally speaking, the louder the voices and the noisier therhetoric about the need forinnovation, the less likely it is that, when you peel back the words, you will find much underneath. In fact, as Jeffrey Phillips points out, what you’ll more likely find is a mix of frustration, misunderstanding and even cynical manipulation as leaders claim to be all for innovationwhile doing practicallyeverything intheir power to make sure it doesn’t, and can’t happen.

We need to ensure that there is that room and permission that allows those courageous and brave innovators to try in the first place.

  • Performance

Innovators must have at least some degree of competence and capability to do the work. People need the right skills and attitudes, they need resources, particularly money, they need discipline and dedication, and they need patience and persistence. They need leadership at every level that is both tolerant and demanding and understands how leaders need to behave in the face of the innovation dynamic, which often requires them to have deficient space and time for work to be done that appears to contradict and even subvert many of the rules of normal operation. I haven’t met many leaders who are capable of all of this.

They also need to understand and be capable of doing the work. Often the best way toinnovate a system is to get outside thesystem, do something useful and productive and, drawing on that experience, take the lessons back into the system which apparently is incapable of doing that for itself; (perhaps we needn’t spend too much time wondering why that is the case, but rather recognise that this outside-in dynamic works and is a crucial part of the culture-busting potential of apparently small socialinnovations).

A fantastic example of this is, One Disease at a Time, a project currently working to eradicate crusted scabies and scabies in Australia, primarily focusing on Indigenous communities in northern Australia where the disease is a debilitating scourge. One Disease has worked its way into the health care system by offering an effective and simple solution that starts by making a real difference in people’s lives.It pickeda point in the system of maximum leverage – that is, a place where a relatively small, but very well targeted intervention hadthe biggest, quickest effect – and worked there first before trying to innovate the system. The project has achieved enormous success, in one of its earlier communities; rates of readmission to hospital for scabies in young children have dropped 50% in less than 3 years.

4. Play

Butmost of all, leaders need to play. By that, I mean an instinct and a willingness to think and work playfully, defined in this sense as a combination of working outside the normal rules and dynamic of“business as usual” work and the ability to engage in thinking, trialling and testing that can often appear whimsical, pointless and irrelevant.

Dictionary definitions of play usually say something like ‘’engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose” There are plenty of other dimensions to this little word, but it is this kind of“no practical purpose” sense that I am referring to.

I’m not saying that all innovation has to be playful or has to start with a kind of “no practical purpose” instinct. One Disease innovated with a deadly serious purpose. However, Dr Sam Prince and his team at One Disease started their work within the small communities, a move which could perhaps have been construed as play or having no practical purpose against the backdrop of the large-scale and deep systematic challenges facing the public health care system of the Northern Territory.

But the point is that their playing - trying a different, community-focused,ground-up and small-scale approach had the effect of rearranging some of the pieces of the game in ways that promised to be more productive – which led to serious results which, in turn, have invested their‘play’ with a degree of seriousness that allows them to engage with the larger systems of health care and, in the process, to start changing them deeply.

In conclusion, the two most importantthings you need tofocus on if you want to use innovation to change systems andshift cultures are permission and play. The third thing is performance. Permission, performance, play - that’s the trifecta you have to pull off. It’s very hard and very rare, but when applied correctly, it can be unstoppable.

Article summarized by Jordan Junge from SIX. The full article and his full biography is available here.

*Martin Stewart Week is a strategic thinker, organisational consultant, facilitator and writer with 30 years' experience spanning government, the "for purpose" or social sector and the corporate sector. His work explores the intersection of policy, government, technology and innovation. He is currently working as an independent consultant and advisor.