Organizational Health Key to Innovation

Is risk encouraged or discouraged in your organization? What happens when someone makes a mistake?

When I talk with a potential client with regard to his or her organization, these are questions I like to ask because they provide me with an indication of just how much of a learning organization it may or may not be. Peter M. Senge describes this concept in great detail in his book, “The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization.”

So much of organizational health is determined by how these two questions are answered because a healthy organization is one that knows calculated risks and mistakes are necessary in order to grow and prosper.

Risk is inherent in business and most businesses would never have started if their founders were risk averse. As companies get larger, control often increases to help maintain structure and order. It can also stifle risk and the resulting innovation.

Organizations that try to minimize mistakes are also likely to minimize innovation. Those that accept mistakes as part of growth, however, are likely to reap more innovation.

Innovation doesn’t have to be about creating the next iPhone: it can also be about finding new materials to minimize production costs, restructuring the workforce to be more efficient, or expanding into new and unproven markets.

Innovation requires being open to risk and allowing for mistakes.

So much of risk taking is the ability to make oneself vulnerable. Being vulnerable can often lead to criticism, ridicule and embarrassment. It can also lead to creativity and spur new ideas.

Vulnerability is all too rarely seen in our leaders. However, I believe it actually demonstrates great strength of character and brings about loyalty.

In Brene Brown’s book “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way we Live, Love, Parent and Lead,” she discusses the importance of our ability to be vulnerable. She argues that this vulnerability is not a weakness, but instead a path to courage, engagement and meaningful connection. And vulnerability can spark a spirit of truth—and trust—in organizations as well as our families, schools and communities.

Vulnerability is what unites us as humans and, contrary to popular belief, when demonstrated by leaders, actually inspires us to follow them.

In her book, Dr. Brown has 10 questions that help uncover the health of an organization:

  1. What behaviors are rewarded? Punished?
  2. Where and how are people actually spending their resources (time, money, attention)?
  3. What rules and expectations are followed, enforced, and ignored?
  4. Do people feel safe and supported talking about how they feel and asking for what they need?
  5. What are the sacred cows? Who is most likely to tip them? Who stands the cows back up?
  6. What stories are legend and what values to they convey?
  7. What happens when someone fails, disappoints, or makes a mistake?
  8. How is vulnerability (uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure) perceived?
  9. How prevalent are shame and blame and how are they showing up?
  10. What’s the collective tolerance for discomfort? Is the discomfort of learning, trying new things, and giving and receiving feedback normalized, or is there a high premium put on comfort (and how does that look)?

These questions can be difficult because they will cause those answering them to be vulnerable. However, the process can lead to great insight and perhaps fundamental shifts inside the organization. Ultimately, discussing them with a large group could reap huge benefits and begin to help heal the organization.

One of my favorite quotes is by the wrier Anais Nin who said, “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” What if rather than holding back and keeping yourself from showing your vulnerability, you brought it forward? This would take great courage, but it would also free you from what holds you back and expand your life.

Is it risky? You bet. But there may be no better way to transform yourself and your organization to become healthy.  And a healthy you in a healthy organization will bring about needed innovation.

Effective Leading Means Continually Growing

A plant, an animal, a human being all continue to grow or they begin to die. The same is true for leaders and entire organizations.

More than 20 years ago, Peter Senge wrote “The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of The Learning Organization,” and he defines a learning organizations as “…organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together.”

In “Great Leaders Grow: Becoming a Leader for Life,” a new book by Ken Blanchard and Mark Miller, the authors explain how leaders who stop growing can no longer be effective. As they write in the introduction “. . . the path to increased influence, impact, and leadership effectiveness is paved with personal growth.… Our capacity to grow determines our capacity to lead. It’s really that simple.”

Continual growth and lifelong learning are what separate those leaders who sustain their effectiveness from those who do not. Great leaders grow as naturally as they breathe. They don’t get caught up in ego-boosting accolades or the current high stock price. Instead, they remain humble to the ignorance of what they still do not know.

Perhaps no other skill is more vital in the 21st century than the ability to continually learn and grow. And this is true not only for leaders at the top of organizations, but for all who seize leadership opportunities no matter where they reside on the organizational chart.

Individual employees need to continually learn and grow in their business and technical skills as well as their interpersonal skills; team members need to learn and grow so they can overcome conflict and dysfunction to be more effective as a group than they are as individuals; and entire organizations need to learn and grow so they can continually innovate and quickly respond to customers and market conditions.

This growth for the individual can be accomplished in many ways. Blanchard and Miller break it down into the following:

Gain Knowledge – know your strengths and weakness, know the people around you on a deep level, know your industry extremely well, etc.

Reach Out to Others – look for ways to invest in the growth of others, seek mentoring relationships with emerging leaders, frequently use teachable moments, share what you are learning with others, etc.

Open Your World – be on the lookout for ways to grow at work, seek new experiences outside of work, look for additional opportunities to lead everywhere, etc.

Walk Toward Wisdom – be honest with yourself regarding your leadership, actively seek feedback from other truth tellers, seek the counsel of others for important issues, master the art and discipline of asking profound questions, etc.

Each of us is capable of determining our own deficiencies and growing edges. Regardless, seek out feedback opportunities not only with your immediate supervisor, but with co-workers, customers, suppliers, friends, and anyone who can give you an honest appraisal of your strengths and weaknesses.

And don’t rely exclusively on standard, corporate-mandated training. Seek out the books, presentations, training, mentors, experiences, and opportunities that will serve you in your quest to continually learn and grow.

Take charge of your personal growth and take charge of your leadership potential. This is good for your career and it is good for the organization where that “collective aspiration is set free” and it can thrive in the new economy.


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