Article: Engineering innovation towards transformation


Engineering innovation towards transformation

Leadership needs to be geared towards managing deliberately-cultivated contradictions to encourage innovative thinking
Engineering innovation towards transformation

An entrepreneurial leader recognizes efforts for innovation, which may be waiting to happen and might be in the need of an impetus


The genesis of every innovation lies in the conviction that innovation can be engineered into real and concrete action, leading to some actual transformation this is the essence of entrepreneurial leadership


A limit is a limit and going beyond the limit leads to innovation. Thinking of innovation only in terms of technology or strategy is fallacious. In reality, innovation is more common and rampant than what we think of. It is there, almost everywhere; but we fail to recognize it or give it the due respect. It is a human tendency to seek predictability and adhere to actions that lead to such predictable outcomes. The propensity for predictability is as raw an instinct as the inclination to take risk, which is the mother of innovation. In the usual maze of predictable outcomes in the organizational context, the efforts for innovation are usually given a miss and this may happen due to the lack of time or willingness to validate or test the assumptions leading to innovations and validate them. 

In fact, it entirely depends on the leadership team of the organization, whether it wants just the photocopies or the original drafts of human ingenuity. An entrepreneurial leader more often than not, recognizes these efforts for innovation, which may be waiting to happen and might be in the need of an impetus. The top down view might miss the micro innovations1 happening around due to the lack of encouragement and inclusion of such efforts in the actual process building exercises. 

The leaders’ network

Ideally an ‘idea’ usually strikes an individual in its nascent form and then he or she tends to bounce it around and tries to validate it. This happens in situations when the said individual is a ‘confident’ individual. But in situations when an individual is not confident, the idea may not be shared at all and might lose relevance soon. To discover such ideas and such individuals, and to bring them out into the realm of actual action and implementation, an entrepreneurial leader builds a circle of entrepreneurial leaders around him or her. And each of these entrepreneurial leaders is surrounded by a few more. This leads to the creation of a network of entrepreneurial leaders within the organization, exuding great positive vibes resulting in a gentle persuasion of the less confident individuals to express their ideas. The genesis of every innovation lies in the conviction that innovation can be engineered into real and concrete action, leading to some actual transformation. This is the essence of entrepreneurial leadership, which can be practised by anyone anywhere. The entire exercise needs a great deal of ongoing efforts involving development of the networks, through various interventions. 

The Group-think2

The phenomenon of ‘Group-think’ that has kind of taken over the development efforts through learning and development initiatives and also due to the social media’s influence on the thinking of many, is indeed a trap to stall innovative thinking, since it limits individual thinking. To elaborate further, organizational development efforts are usually viewed and implemented in the form of ‘fixing the problems’. Obviously in that situation, the problem has already occurred and been noticed, so the urgency to fix it appears. Therefore, the pressure to adhere and conform is pretty high for all and so it is, for the ‘innovators’ who might be restlessly toying with that little idea in their heads, it becomes a sort of compulsion to desist from sharing it since they are in the trap of Group-think.

Apparently there is an inherent contradiction in the way a corporate is expected to think, behave or progress and what individualistic thinking within the organization might lead to. The expected dissonance resulting from the latter creates a fear in the mind of the leadership team, which is mostly unwarranted. The real test of leadership lies in the management and integration of that dissonance into a synergy, that pulls up the performances through better realization of individual potential. The top management skill can be measured by its ability to encourage and then manage these contradictions; and that is what leadership is all about. These contradictions can be canned and contained in a number of bottles of innovative individualistic thinking, which can be opened and used as the magic oils and potions for the smooth and real progress. It does require a great deal of entrepreneurial leadership acumen and efforts.

The two sides of the same coin

A: ’Group think’ as a phenomenon, in certain set of circumstances make the participants find comfort in a feeling of fear of being judged; and ‘to agree’ seems to be the best way to escape real and intense thinking. It also makes them seek the security of being accepted, and not being rejected because of the angularities in their perceptions and expressions. So eventually they end up smothering those perceptions that do not match the group perceptions.

In today’s digitally driven world, the ideas are in a way wrapped in the gift boxes of personalities. People follow personalities’ boxes and.. the ‘ideas’ that come in them, which are bound to be limited simply because they are in boxes and for the very reason that the validation of such ideas or views are done in the context of the personality involved. And in the process, the ideas lose relevance and personalities take over. It also implies at times that some of these personalities with their boxes get the tags of leaders and the rest become the followers. Thus, intense thinking may or may not be done by the leader, while others just keep recycling those same thoughts, due to one of the following reasons: 

  1. Allegiance has to be accepted due to the basic psychological need to belong
  2. A deliberate or unintended avoidance of efforts that need to be put into thinking
  3. The lack of real interest in the issues at hand, due to an inability or disinclination to process much thoughts or ideas 

The personality box with ideas in it is the most visible type of leadership as a phenomenon. This is risky and is replete with pitfalls because the motivations of the followers become completely different from the originally intended or the leader may stop putting in efforts in the long run because of the success of certain initiatives at a certain point of time. In such cases, the risk of stagnation is always there. So it is one of the major challenges for leadership today - discouraging personality boxes, yet encouraging the ideas that come in them; and converting them into ‘Dynamic Group think’ as well as established processes if needed. The onus lies on the leader to recognize such situations and act through the web of entrepreneurial leaders around him or her.

B: On the contrary, in certain circumstances, ‘Group think’ can become a potent force of innovation, when each participant is a ‘confident’ individual or has been brought up to the needed confidence level by the leader. This type of Group think, I would like to refer to as ‘Dynamic Group Think’ as mentioned in the previous paragraph. Group dynamics is at its best in such cases and may or may not last for long. Therefore, ‘time’ factor is also important for the leader to unite all the aspiring minds and thought processes onto a single window of innovative performance.  

In such cases, the leader needs to work on the two aspects: helping people gain and retain confidence so that they don’t fear rejection or being alone with their ideas; and, being able to catch innovative ideas in nick of time and work around them before they lose relevance. 

No group lasts forever though the participants might want it to. Sooner or later the relevance of a group dims or it even becomes completely irrelevant. An entrepreneurial leader will capitalize on the synergy and motivation of such group if at all he or she manages to bring them to a level, wherein each participant is a ‘confident’ individual who may or may not have an idea to contribute; yet possibilities are always there. Leadership in today’s complex world needs to be totally geared to manage differences or contradictions that are cultivated deliberately to encourage innovative thinking. And this is only possible by converting the impersonal entity into a vibrant network of entrepreneurial leaders.

The earliest use of the term "micro-innovation” was reportedly by Qihoo's co-founder Zhou Hongyi during his speech in 2010 Chinese Internet Conference. Similar to Lee's interpretation of the term, Zhou stressed that "micro-innovation" is not about revolutionary invention of business model or technology but rather customer experience oriented tweaks on existing products. Zhou explained that, to his team, realistically modifying business model, improving product's functionality, or even beautifying user interface can all be called “micro-innovations. 

Irving Janis, a research psychologist from Yale University, developed the concept of Group Think.


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Topics: Leadership

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