Think about some of the challenges we’re experiencing as we make our way through 2023. High-profile layoffs, volatile markets, a protracted war, supply chain and climate disruptions, political unrest, weak signals of recovery (e.g., a slow return back to the office), a disengaged and distracted workforce—all while we collectively navigate the threat and trauma of the last three years.
One thing we know: the most common reaction to threat, trauma, and adversity is retreat and defending. Take a look around. We’re witnessing a retreat from creativity and expansion and an overemphasis on “execution,” implementation, and business as usual. There’s a pervasive loss of discretionary effort and passion in our workforce to make a difference, go the extra mile, and to deliver above and beyond. We’re seeing more behaviors geared to defending turf and territory, and just getting by.
Amidst all this, one thing is certain: the post-pandemic world we’re entering needs more than just execution and business as usual. You need your people to innovate—to generate new value—as your workforce delivers today and builds a sustainable foundation for the future we’re hurtling toward.
OK, so you want innovation, discovery, and invention. What most senior leaders don’t know is that to get there, we need to invest in peoples’ creativity. That’s because creativity precedes innovation. To innovate, we need to get creative. Together.
But during the past three years, most people’s creativity has been primarily directed to rebounding and adapting. These are valid and important applications of creative action, but they are reactive. Not proactive. Rebounding and adapting are not the same as inventing and positively disrupting by introducing new value.
So how do you activate and inspire a return to creative pioneering across the company you lead? Here are five arenas for CEOs to strengthen to activate your workforce’s natural desire to innovate:
- Double down on purpose. Purpose generates gravitational pull. It is the most powerful force that gives rise to conditions that call for creativity. And clarity of purpose is essential to ignite creative potential—especially when your purpose is developed together with others and experienced as “shared.” Now is the time to take a good hard look at the story you tell about why you exist as a business entity—and to ensure that your value narrative includes a clarion call for creativity and innovation—not just execution and implementation. Infuse your narrative with the reason why creativity is essential to the long-term success and profitability of your venture.
- Focus creativity. Some think creativity is about “1000 flowers blooming.” And while it’s important for ideas to come from anywhere, its better when they come in response to a clear, strategically prioritized “innovation challenge” framed in measurable terms. “Increase customer satisfaction while reducing cost of delivery” is a great example. It has metrics and creative tension built in. Now more than ever it is your job to stand behind a dynamic, focused incentive for creative action. Help everyone become an “innovation investment decision-maker” by establishing clear criteria (e.g., measures of desirability, feasibility, and viability) for moving projects forward as they mature.
- Embrace constraints. Given all the recent talk about “psychological safety,” I’ve noticed a tendency to misinterpret that as meaning we have to be overly nice. Now is not the time to be “nice.” Now is the time for candor—delivered with respect and care. Your skill in communicating the challenging realities of your business environment—blended with your faith in people’s capability to meet the moment with creativity and ingenuity—will set the stage for facing obstacles and constraints head on. Then, people can bring their natural, creative potential to overcome, transform, and reframe constraints as opportunities.
- Rethink partnerships. Now is also the time to invest in the ecosystem—the world in which your customers use and benefit from your products, services and the value your business delivers. Focus new partnerships on the goal of co-creating value together. Rethink your alliances with contractors, partners, and customers. Consider how you might generate value with customers instead of just delivering value “for customers.” And explore ways you might join with competitors to deliver greater value together for customers, markets, and for society. That may sound radical. But in the new world of work, strength will come from standing together instead of going it alone.
- Model “empowered accountability.” I hear a lot of talk these days about “empowerment.” Leaders talk about empowering teams and pushing decision-making down to the lowest appropriate level. But most don’t really know how to release decision rights and establish the conditions for teams to step forward and meet empowerment with accountability. It’s your job to demonstrate that you trust others, to embrace approaches that might not line up exactly with how you would proceed, and to reduce “organizational sludge.” You and your leadership team must model what accountability looks like in action (for example, casting a wide net for input and letting people know how their perspectives influenced your decisions). And finally, you and your leadership team must offer appropriate degrees of freedom” for teams to explore, experiment, and invent.
These five arenas are powerful and important for your focus as CEO in the year ahead.
Despite the volatility, disruption, and challenges carrying over from the last three years, you can and must lead your business in search of new value. It’s your job to balance shorter-term results with longer-term strength, business sustainability, and the generation of new value at scale.
Use what’s left of 2023 and the foment of our times to propel your business into a creative, innovative phase that delivers invention, positive disruption, and shared benefit. The good news is you have a talented workforce that wants to create, partner, take smart risks, experiment, and invent. Now is the time to refocus beyond just rebounding and adapting for the mutual benefit of both your business and your people.
Written by Steven Kowalski.
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