As you know, these monthly articles are designed to bring you thoughts, insight and practical ideas about leadership from me and my clients.

This month, Dr. Patrick Smith of Roche shares key learnings about innovation that he gained from a programme run by the London Business School.

I’m sure his summary below will provide useful ‘food for thought’ that you can apply in your own working life.

Creating an innovative environment
by Dr Patrick Smith

Dr Patrick Smith serves as the Head of Virology Clinical Pharmacology at Roche Pharma in Nutley NJ. After a decade working as a faculty member at The University at Buffalo, he has observed first-hand the striking differences in culture between the academic environment and the environment which exists in the pharmaceutical industry. He has developed an interest in bringing together the best aspects of both of these cultures to create a more optimal balance, which may help promote innovation and lead to long-term business success.

Innovation is implementing new ideas that create value. The best innovation occurs at interfaces where individuals with different backgrounds and expertise come together in a mindset that embraces their differences.

In addition, 30% of how employees behave and perform at work is due to the individual, while 70% is determined by the environment. Therefore, a company of ordinary people with a great environment will outperform a company with great people in an ordinary environment. The job of a leader is to create the right environment. Here are some tips to help you do this.

Tip 1: Reduce the number of rules
At a complex road junction in the Netherlands, drivers were confused by the number of signs and markings, which led to accidents. When all the signs were taken away, drivers had to think for themselves. They took personal responsibility and accidents were reduced. The fewer rules you apply to your people, the more freedom they have to be creative.

Tip 2: Question everything
Organisations, teams and individuals have established ways of doing things that have developed over time. Assumptions like these can make us more efficient, but they may also make us ‘passive thinkers’.

  1. The assumptions we make determine what we do
  2. We make assumptions based on past experience and knowledge
  3. Most assumptions are implicit (we are not aware of them until they are pointed out to us)

To be radically innovative, you have to challenge assumptions.

If you give people an ‘impossible’ task, most of them will say (a) “My God, this is impossible” and stop doing it. Some people will say (b) “My God, this is impossible to do if we use the same old ways. Maybe there is another way to do it”. The art of leadership is to get people to go from attitude (a) to attitude (b).

Tip 3: Allow time for creativity

Time pressures alter priorities. Many organisations are busy being busy and task-focused (operating in the ‘High Urgency’ quadrants of the diagram). However, when you take time to stop and think, you can question things, experiment and think strategically so you’re more likely come up with a creative solution.

Tip 4: Create a culture of experimentation
The biggest factor in innovation is environment, and that is determined by the leadership. You can energise people and impact their performance by the energy you create. One way to do this is through positive framing. When trying to inspire new ways of thinking, don’t talk about doom, gloom and problems, instead talk about pooling your brains to arrive at exciting opportunities and resolve challenges. Another way, often talked about but not always practiced, is to allow people to take risks and then learn from them – whether they succeed or fail. Failure is not making a mistake; it’s not learning from it. Also, reward good ideas.

Tip 5: Make time for your team
As a leader, your time is a valuable commodity to be used wisely. Employees gauge how important they are to you by the amount of time you spend with them. Your behaviour can determine how valued they feel and therefore how well they perform.

In particular, focus on the following:

  • Small changes can have a BIG impact
  • Focus on the culture and environment
  • Create a positive urgency
  • Give your people ownership, a challenge aligned with their skills, and a sense of purpose – this is what motivates people to excel
  • Sell the vision, and celebrate wins and progress

If you’re interested in exploring innovation further, please email me.

In next month’s article, we explore how to create high-performing teams.

Please contact me anytime if you have content to share or would like me to cover a particular subject. I look forward to hearing from you.