Leading from strength; improving productivity and innovation

STRONG leaders are essential for business success today, never more so than in the current challenging climate.

People Management Issues with Robert Mandeya

Given the turbulence in global and local economies, there is certainly an increased compelling need for leaders to possess the craft competence to steer their organisations through the volatile and unstable economic environment.

In my last installment, I opined the need for leaders today to apply “the whole brain approach” to their function.

Modern leaders should be concerned about how their minds actually work. It is a proven fact that, most people only ever use 5% of their brain’s potential. Even the great Einstein is believed to have been using only 10% of his brain at the height of his powers. Now given this, how much of our brain are we using at the moment? There is no function in an organisation that cannot become more innovative and more productive if we apply our whole brain.

Collaborative leadership in action

Progress accelerates when an organisation improves people, processes, products and services for greater innovation and greater productivity. Improving productivity requires innovative solutions.

Developing more innovative solutions requires greater productivity. Creating opportunities for such synergy requires being open to change in every aspect of the organisation; there is no place for “sacred cows.” Most enhancements occur across functions, so leaders need to listen to experts as carefully as general managers.

Similarly, recognise that people who work behind the scenes may generate innovations as important as those suggested by people who deal directly with customers. The search for greater synergy has led many organisations to reconsider their structures – for example, developing more open, less hierarchical structures with fewer silos and more fluid teams. If you think creating a forward-focussed organisation that constantly improves productivity and relevant innovation is a formidable challenge, you are right. But it is not insurmountable. Although changing an organisation’s structure may be helpful, changing the behaviours of its leaders is essential.

Changing patterns of influence

At the recent Confederation of Zimbabwe Retailers Annual Awards ceremony which I attended, I was impressed to learn that they had a category for the Best Innovative Retail Organisation in Zimbabwe. This indeed is the right direction taken by our organisations. We need to encourage innovation at all levels of endeavour. Helping your organisation become forward-thinking, innovative and increasingly productive requires looking towards the future and creating opportunities to shape it in customer-relevant ways. For leaders, this means accelerating their pace of learning, changing their perspective and developing new behaviours.

Changing perspective requires a properly balanced emphasis on investors, customers and employees. For example, placing too much focus on investors at the expense of customers limits the energy available to drive productivity and innovation in customer-relevant solutions that sustain an organisation’s long-term viability. Customers, prospects, suppliers and similar groups are the key to defining opportunities and turning them into profitable products and services. If you build strong relationships with these stakeholders, engage in constant, meaningful dialogue and respond appropriately, the results will serve your investors and board equally well.

New thinking generates possibilities

Many leaders understand the need to be more innovative and productive but tend to rely on the practices that drove their success in the past. For example, leaders often turn to their customary sources of internal and external intelligence.

However, the more you ask the same people the same questions, the less likely you are to gain new insights to drive innovation and productivity. Expanding your sources of learning – especially externally – is essential to helping your organisation become more innovative and productive. Listening is also crucial. Are you really hearing the teams you so carefully compose and deploy? Have you asked customers what challenges and opportunities they anticipate a year from now? Are you paying careful attention to their answers? Further, consider whether you are asking the right questions. “Why not?” questions can help generate innovative solutions. “Why?” questions often surface opportunities to improve productivity

New measures of success

Beware of the tendency to pursue productivity and innovation too narrowly. Leaders often look to product development for creativity and to operations for efficiency. Yet every organisation offers endless opportunities to innovate more productively and be more innovative in improving productivity. There is no function in an organisation that cannot become more innovative and more productive. Creating new measures of success may help you take a broader approach. Try describing and calibrating success throughout your organisation based on contributions to productivity and innovation, relevance to target customers and whether resources are deployed effectively and efficiently to achieve a sustainable bottom-line improvement. Doing more with less may sound appealing. It has undoubtedly helped many organisations reduce waste and cut costs. But improved efficiency does not necessarily result in better productivity and greater innovation. Leaders who recognise that both are required in today’s globally dynamic marketplace – and change their perspective, behaviours and enthusiasm for learning – can begin to transform their organisations for sustainable bottom-line success.

Leadership is an active, not passive, process. While many leaders have attributed their success to “luck” or “being in the right place at the right time,” none of them sat idly by or waited for fate to smile upon them.

Although the distinctive competences of a person may fit needs of the moment, those who lead others to greatness seek challenge. The challenge may have been an innovative new product, a re-organisation, or a turn around, but the majority of these cases involved a change from the status quo. They involved challenging the process.

Robert Mandeya is a senior executive training consultant and communication in management advisor, a personal coach in leadership and professional development at the Institute of Leadership Research and Development. You can contact him on lead.inst.dev@gmail.com, mandeyarobert@gmail.com.