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Innovation In Leadership

Innovation In Leadership
13th Feb 2008 12:52 pm

Innovative leaders are learning from new insights into how organisations adapt and grow in chaotic environments that come to us from recent research into the behaviour of living systems. This field, often referred to as systems thinking, considers organisations as complex,, emergent systems that have no boundaries. In this paradigm, leading in times of rapid change requires an understanding of the interdependence of all aspects of the organisation. Organisations, like living systems in nature, survive within a complex environment only if they develop the capacity to learn and assimilate new information as it emerges.

Changes in the study of leadership, which once focused solely on the leader as the centre of power and influence, now expands to examine the community that is being led, which reflects the broad changes in power dynamics that have occurred in society. Traditional command-and-control style leadership frequently manifests itself in the corporate world through a restricted information flow to the community – whether it be access to on-line databases, access to individuals in-the-know or an exclusive approach regarding invitations to attend strategic work sessions. In many organisations people are told only what it is deemed they ‘need’ to know. The impact of this trickle of information through the wider organisation severely constrains the ability of teams and individuals to understand the bigger picture, which in turn limits the opportunity for creative thinking.

The systems view helps innovative leaders rethink conventional approaches to managing their organisations and leading change. While the principles of living systems do not provide us with a cure-all for the challenges that face modern organisations, a shift in mindset to seeing ‘wholes’ rather than ‘parts’ allows innovative leaders to see interrelationships rather than linear, cause-and-effect chains, and change processes rather than change events. This is a useful framework when an organisation needs to fundamentally reinvent itself and sustain its agility.

We believe that reducing the constraints of leadership control on information flow in organizations can result in self-organizing groups and informal networks of individuals demonstrating increased levels of creative, out-of-the-box thinking. The benefits of building the organisation’s collective intelligence has been widely documented and has a dramatic effect on increasing the organisation’s competitive edge.

Innovative leaders who mine the collective wisdom and creative energy in their organizations relinquish the quest for harnessing control and order. By encouraging greater access to information and reducing control functions that restrict its flow, the leaders fosters increased creative thinking in their organisations. This means that the leadership team doesn’t exclude and predefine who needs to know what, nor do they see technology or management as gatekeepers to information. Instead, they:

• Remove control factors and allow complexity to emerge
• Encourage contribution and make knowledge sharing a core value
• Trust that people will make sense of information because they understand their organizations and know what needs to be done
• Allow self-organization to take place and believe in people’s fundamental capacity to learn, innovate and adapt.
• Nurture innovative ideas and encourage risk taking

Whether we are talking about living organisms or organisations, surprisingly general laws govern adaptive systems. Organisations, like complex adaptive systems in nature, survive within a complex environment only if they develop the capacity to learn. In order for a self-organizing system to flourish, it therefore needs free access to information, and to become astute at noticing and assimilating new information as it emerges. Being able to understanding the process of self-organization and emergence allows innovative leaders the opportunity to tap into the latent intelligence that exists within their organizations. In the new-science model, leaders supply the vision and set the context, but strategic actions are no longer planned by a few executives at the top. Instead, business solutions emerge from organizational learning, the alignment and coordination of individual actions and the workings of informal information networks. The full passion, spirit and commitment of the organization are brought to bear on the process. This style of leadership encourages employees to use their creative potential and recognises that an original thought on the part of a single employee can greatly impact the organization’s competitive edge – frequently out of all proportion to the original idea.

Innovative leaders are:

  • Less focused on structure and internal resources and more focused on interfaces and understanding the dynamics of change.
  • Increasingly recognizing their organizations as continuously self-organizing, open systems. 
  • More broadly integrating with their environment in ways that ensure that boundaries allow information to flow freely.
  • Eliminating rigidity in order to support more fluid processes. 
  • Simplifying roles and removing physical and psychological barriers in order to enable people, ideas and information to move freely, thereby enhancing agility 
  • Recognizing knowledge creation as a function of collaboration between individuals and groups 
  • Encouraging creative processes to occur independent of outside intervention.

The innovative leader understands the role that he/she plays in terms of being the designer of the organisation’s learning experience, not the authority figure that holds all the answers. They create the environment in which information is accessed and shared and in which collaborative learning and knowledge sharing is valued and encouraged.

This article was published in Biz.assist in June 2007.
Lee Knobel is a director and founding member of WorldsView Consulting. She can be contacted at

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