August 7

The Innovation Gatekeepers

There are two types of people within an organisation, the leadership team and everyone else. It’s the job of the leadership team to come up with the ideas, and it’s everyone else’s job to carry out those ideas!

Right? No wrong, wrong, wrong on so many levels. Okay, maybe the leadership team is ultimately responsible for modelling the way and defining strategy; but to think of an organisation in terms of ‘us and them,’ to think of people in terms of those that instruct and those that do is to reinforce a historic vision of hierarchy which has no place in today’s business world.

Nowadays, the name of the game is innovation and that means empowerment and collaboration. Within an innovation culture, teamwork still has a strong part to play but that teamwork is now open rather than siloed, collaborative rather than exclusive. This more than ever places middle managers and team leaders squarely at the heart of organisational culture and driving innovation, they are the innovation gatekeepers. Under a strict hierarchical and autocratic system, team leaders are little more than conduits, passing instructions down and reporting results up. Under a culture of innovation, middle managers are the people who work every day to translate the strategy into collaborative, agile and informed behaviours and actions.

Quite simply, no matter how carefully a leadership team research, identify and draw up the conditions to transform an organisation into one which embraces innovation, without the support of the middle management team nothing is going to change. Instilling a culture of innovation requires changes at every level from attitudes and behaviours to processes and approaches. If middle managers and team leaders display any resistance or lack understanding of the innovation ideals then the gates will slam shut and any chance of change will vanish.

For example, creating genuine solutions may require people to work across departments. If a team leader requires all interactions to be passed via them then innovative collaboration is stifled at the outset. Alternatively, in order to create innovative solutions, the organisation has to develop genuine customer insights. If a middle manager imposes targets for the number of calls answered or places limits on the time allowed when speaking to customers, there is little hope of gathering the required insights.

With all this in mind, how do top teams ensure that the innovation gatekeepers actively embrace a move towards a more innovative method of working? As with any other change, success comes through anticipation, dialogue, training and interaction. Know your people may seem trite but it does enable you to anticipate and overcome barriers to change. Keeping an ongoing dialogue, demonstrating the new culture through your actions and expectations will help middle managers to gain a better understanding of what the new culture entails. And when you are asking your middle managers to lead their teams in an entirely new way then the chances are they will need training in leadership and communication, in dialogue and collaboration. They’ll need to become innovation leaders!

When you have spent considerable time understanding your existing culture, in identifying your current level of innovation maturity and defining your desired innovation mix it is all too tempting to simply rush into implementation. Taking time out to ensure that your middle managers are ready to act as the innovation gatekeepers to the new culture may well be the difference between success and failure.


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