Leading or managing innovative vision — Where do you stand?

Our discussions in this column centre on leadership; we try not to dwell on management.

Opinion by Sam Hlabati

I believe leaders are more atuned to the aspirations of people, which makes them better potential systems thinkers than managers.

If you view yourself as a leader, I hope the discussion will resonate with some of the issues you have observed.

The differentiators between leadership and management are numerous. However, we will discuss a handful that have an impact on the systemic success of leadership; with the potential to take your organisation into the future.

The greatest way of ensuring your organisation is guaranteed sustainable success is to foster an environment conducive to the creation of new and better ways of doing business.

Innovation is fostered through the freedom to act and availing to employees the appropriate latitude to try what has never been tried before.

Leaders are either innovative themselves or they create innovation-friendly space in the organisation.

Such leaders constantly keep eyes open for new trends and cutting edge business strategies. On the other hand, a manager would maintain what is clearly spelt out in policies, procedures and processes. The tendency by managers is to control everything, ensuring the “T’s” are crossed and the “I’s” are dotted.

Many moons ago we said Kodak’s demise was triggered by the advent of digital photography — a technology it pioneered, but never managed to turn to its own advantage.

Records at the United States Patents and Trade Office; entry number 4 131 919 dated December 26 1978, to be specific, show that two inventors Gareth Lloyd and Steven Sasson of Rochester, New York of Eastman Kodak Company filed a patent for an electronic imaging apparatus, otherwise known as  an electronic still camera.

This device employed an inexpensive information-recording medium such as audio-grade magnetic tape for capturing scene images. This was the beginning of the digital camera, such a long time ago, but was unknown to many leaders. The Kodak executive team did not see any value in the invention, most probably because the inventors’ presentation was titled “Filmless Photography”.

At the time, Kodak had a 90% market share of all film sold in the US. However, it is important to note the technical report for the invention stated: “The camera described in this report represents a first attempt demonstrating a photographic system which may, with improvements in technology, substantially impact the way pictures will be taken in the future.”

The project was shelved until 2001, only after Fuji unveiled their digital camera, igniting a revolution in digital photography. How would you judge the then Kodak executive team? Were they leaders or managers?

It is clear they wanted to control the business within the path of the approved strategic objectives, a beaten path. If a new idea brought before you as a leader does not make sense, it may well be because of your illiteracy in respect of innovation rather than the “idiocy” of the innovative team member. Rather, take a step back and look at the issue from a different perspective; that is what leaders should ideally do.

True leaders know they do not know everything, so they ask the inventor to explain the innovation without being judgemental.

Managers are good at exerting controls on the individuals under them. They expect results through measurement. Monitoring of every minute that an employee is expected to be at work is done with the accuracy of a financial statement.

Good leaders know that monitoring physical presence is far removed from the realisation of the fruits of engaging the mind of an employee. Have you heard of a phenomenon termed presenteeism?

This is where one can be physically present but absent mentally. With the ever-advancing technology, routine tasks are being replaced by intelligent computers.

The human being is left to monitor the technology, giving them more time on their hands. One would assume that employees should be given more latitude to use their minds, but the controls on trivialities tend to increase by the day.

A number of forward-thinking organisations have realised the need to harness innovation, by creating what I would call “thinking space”. The Post-it-Note was created by scientist Art Fry in 1974 during Fry’s “15% time”, an innovation time window that was afforded to him by his organisation; 3M.

Technology giant Google gives its employees a day a week, thus 20% of the time, to allow them to follow their passions. That is innovative space created for the employees. Are leaders within our midst giving people “thinking space”, thus a chance to be innovative, or the mantra is about promoting presenteeism?

Have you ever heard of people complaining about a particular person in some form of authority being a buffer that stops the flow of information in either direction, thus upwards or downwards, in relation to their own organisational level? Allowing innovation space should be complemented by the existence of an organisation communication process that is receptive to ideas. Organisations cannot afford the approach of the Kodak executive team of the 1977-1978 period.

Employees should be given the freedom to explore their ideas to see where they lead. If your organisational culture is such that each work hour has to account for progress, your employees are inherently prone to avoid risks and tow the line by doing the routine work. It is important to not only allow employees’ innovation initiatives to fail, but also to celebrate what I would term the “success of trying”.

The succeeding at the initiative of trying out something new is the first success, an eventual successful output is the second success. Thomas Edison had failed thousands of times in his invention of the light bulb when he said: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10 000 ways that won’t work.”

Managers dwell on control of all aspects no matter how trivial, leaders dwell on providing a vision, direction and innovation space. Know where you belong and know what is good for your organisation.
Hlabati specialises in human capital business strategies advisory services. —
samhlabati@gmail.com

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