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Pivotal Practices for Leading Innovation

By Amiel Handelsman

 This is true whether you are a chief innovation officer, line manager, or technologist. The catch: you are not born with these skills. You develop them through practice. In the words of Stanford University professor Bob Sutton, “Leading innovation is a daily chore where you work at getting slightly better.”

In my work with companies, I’ve discovered two pivotal practices for leading innovation: listening like a master and seeing patterns. What makes them pivotal is that they provide a high return on improved performance. Elevating your game from the “B” level to the “A” level significantly improves key activities of leading innovation, like providing internal stimuli and sourcing external ideas. The catch, again, is that these gains do not come as a result of luck but on-the-job practice. This article describes what it means to listen like a master and see patterns and how to practice these in a way that boosts innovation.

Listening Like a Master

Listening is central to many innovation stories yet rarely called out. In a recent interview, Tom Peters said that listening is so important to business success that it should be taught in every company and business school. Here’s the reason: listening is not merely one of fifty leadership competencies. It is half of what you do. The other half is speaking.

Why don’t we read about listening in innovation stories? This is partly due to its reputation as a “soft” quality and partly because listening quality is hard to measure. People can feel in their gut when you’re listening well but cannot say why. Skillful listening is like a Jedi mind trick. It produces instant results with far-reaching impact but seems more like a curiosity than a learnable skill.

Fortunately, everyone can learn to listen better—as long as you know what it is. Listening like a master requires more than mechanically taking in sounds. It also goes beyond “active listening,” where you nod your head and say “Uh-huh.” It is even more complex than figuring out the meaning behind someone’s words. Listening like a master means recognizing the filter through which you pay attention so you can expand your repertoire of responses.

In my book Practice Greatness, I describe a strategic conversation in a Fortune 500 company where participants’ quality of listening directly impacts innovation. The players are a Senior VP who oversees a suite of products and two bright middle managers. The managers’ task is to describe the market landscape and how the company can reposition itself for success.

A typical version of this story would focus on who says what. The full story also highlights how people listen. In this case, the SVP listens through a filter that allows certain information to go through and blocks out the rest. Her filter works as follows: will this make me look weak or strong? This filter is habitual, reflexive, and pervasive.  

If the SVP is unaware of her filter, it owns her. She shuts out the managers’ ideas, because taking them seriously would represent an admission of weakness. (I’m the boss, so the ideas should be mine). On the other hand, if she recognizes her listening filter, new possibilities arise. As soon as she starts ignoring the managers’ perspective, she catches herself. Oops, there I go again. Instead of automatically dismissing the ideas, she takes them seriously. The listening filter is now something she owns rather than something that owns her.

Meanwhile, the middle managers bring their own listening filters. As one manager prepares for the conversation, he feels anxious, and his mind races through negative scenarios. What if the SVP doesn’t like the ideas? What if she laughs at me? He pictures himself sweating profusely and stumbling over his words.

If the manager is oblivious to this filter, his performance will suffer. He’ll either hold back the new idea or share it with a shakiness that undermines his credibility. On the other hand, if he catches himself imagining worst-case scenarios, he can self-correct. The scenarios become assessments, not the truth. As a result, he’s more likely to say exactly what the SVP needs to hear.

Moral of the story: listening is pivotal. The ability of these leaders to have a constructive conversation that fosters innovation depends on how well they recognize their listening filters and then self-correct.

Sound familiar?

The Nine Listening Filters

In case this is new territory for you, here is a list of nine listening filters that leaders, managers and employees often apply:

  • Am I being criticized?
  • Am I being appreciated for how special I am?
  • Am I getting credit for my achievements?
  • Is there enough depth here?
  • Is this going to drain my energy and resources?
  • What could go wrong?
  • Is this situation exciting or boring?
  • Who is in charge here?
  • Will this cause harmony or conflict?

Although several filters may feel familiar, you likely use one a majority of the time. Think of it as your “home base.” Pay close attention to it and manage it so that it does not get in the way of your effectiveness and ability to recognize innovative opportunities.

The On-the-Job Practice Cycle

When leaders discover their listening filter, it is often a “aha” moment. So, too, is the moment they realize that leading innovation involves seeing patterns of past behaviors. Yet, in both cases, insight alone does not produce excellence. The other ingredient is deliberate practice. Like elite athletes and musicians, leaders upgrade their skills by repeating a set of actions over and over again with the intent to improve performance. This deliberate practice accelerates their learning and the pace of innovation.

But leaders have full lives. When is there time to practice things like listening? Simple: on the job. In fact, research by the Center for Creative Leadership suggests that the best leaders learn not from books or training but from on-the-job experience. That’s why I guide leaders through the “on-the-job practice cycle.” This cycle has four steps:

  1. Preparing. The quiet and clear-headed thinking you do before a meeting, speech, email, factory tour, customer visit, or negotiation. What do I want to get out of this? What can I contribute? How might I do that? What listening traps do I need to avoid?
  2. Acting. The event or action itself.
  3. Reflecting. The act of non-judgmentally reviewing what just happened in order to capture key lessons—preferably in a quiet space. What went well? What could I do differently? What was the quality of my listening?
  4. Getting Feedback. Ask others about what just happened. “Hey Bob, I’d like some feedback about that call with the sales team.”

The great thing about this cycle is that it requires not new time but new attention. When you commit to improving your innovation leadership, your calendar may change a little or a lot. What shifts dramatically is how you show up in these experiences and the speed by which you learn from them.

Seeing Patterns

Most people think strategy is a ploy or plan for the future, but it can also be a pattern of past actions—not what was intended, but what resulted. Canadian management guru, Henry Mintzberg, calls this an emergent strategy. “Strategies form and are formulated. So even good ones need not necessarily be conscious and purposeful,” he says. To improve how you lead innovation, upgrade your ability to spot patterns that can lead to innovation.

There is a famous example of a “thought experiment” involving Intel executives Gordon Moore and Andy Grove in which they see a pattern that is counter to their view of their business. They are adept enough to see that this pattern could have a profound effect on the success of Intel.

In the experiment, Grove and Moore fire themselves, physically leave the room, come back in, and decide to stop manufacturing the DRAM (Dynamic Random Access Memory), Intel’s bread-and-butter product. This sets in motion a dramatic and successful reinvention of the company.

A few years before the famous thought experiment, Intel middle managers start shifting production away from memory and toward other products like microprocessors. They made this heretical change without senior management approval because microprocessors’ higher margins automatically give them a leg up in manufacturing allocation decisions. Therefore, Grove and Moore’s thought experiment is not only a deliberate strategy but also an emergent strategy. They see a pattern of behavior—the shift in manufacturing away from DRAM—and give it a large stamp of approval.  

Amiel Handelsman is a Portland-based executive coach and change consultant with two decades of experience developing leaders. He is the author of Practice Greatness: Escape Small Thinking, Listen Like A Master, And Lead With Your Best (JZ Leadership Press, 2014). He can be reached at amiel@amielhandelsman.com.