Read Between the (Innovation) Lines

Company leaders tout boldness and creativity. But in practice, do they really mean it?

Published: Sep 13, 2019

Employees around the world are hearing the same things from their leaders, at town halls and on conference calls: Be innovative. Take risks. Be disruptive.

But a study by Accenture shows that those words often differ from actual implementation. While 76% of leaders say they routinely encourage their staff to experiment with bold, new ideas, only 42% of employees agreed with that statement. That's because when push comes to shove, what bosses really want are bottom-line results-with or without the bold, creative flair. The issue is all the more rampant these days, as five generations in the workplace have very different ideas of what constitutes success. Baby boomers tend to be more risk averse than their millennial colleagues, who want to grab the wheel and go from zero to 60-immediately. And that's not to mention the push for purpose that younger workers want, where a job provides meaning along with a steady paycheck.

When push comes to shove, what bosses really want are bottom-line results.

With such differing priorities, here's how to understand whether what you're hearing from top brass actually is being implemented in reality.

Research your company's track record.

The first place to look for clues as to how much your employer may push boundaries is its past. If leadership has a history of making big pronouncements only to back down later, that's a clear red flag. One way to find this out, if your company is public, is to read the quarterly conference calls that happen with investors and analysts. You may notice that a big project was touted in the beginning of the year, only to drop off the map by the fourth quarter. You can also talk to colleagues who've been around for a long time to get a sense of whether innovation is top of mind. Another sign is if the company has a chief innovation officer or someone whose duties officially involve pushing the envelope. "You can tell a lot if there's a person coordinating innovative efforts," says Karen Huang, director of search assessment at Korn Ferry.

It's also important to listen for what's emphasized in meetings and who gets praised publicly. One manager at a financial-services firm recalls hearing announcements from leaders about pushing the envelope. But at company meetings, the folks who received recognition were the ones bringing in the bucks-not those taking bold risks. Those people were also the ones getting bonuses, not the folks who tried a bold idea and later saw it tank. "Even if you failed, you should be rewarded for trying," Huang says.

Lean on your sponsor.

Getting clarity on whether your company really values boldness is exactly the type of situation where your backers-particularly sponsors, who are higher-ups willing to go to bat for you-come in handy. They can help you decide whether your idea is over the top or the timing isn't right. Plus, they might agree to back you publicly. "You don't want to be the cowboy," says Mary Abbajay, president of Careerstone Group, an organizational-consulting, training, and executive-coaching firm.

Prep for blowback.

If you get the okay to move forward and your internal compass tells you that what you want to propose really could be groundbreaking, you still have to prepare for blowback. One way to do this is to try and cultivate the right allies beforehand. "Determine who influences whom and who you need as your advocate," says Kim Zoller, CEO of the coaching and training firm ID360. "Even if they don't directly touch the project, it's incredibly important that you have a strategic alliance plan." Then if you get dour results, you have the breadcrumbs to show the reasoning and backing for your project. If objections still continue, especially from managers with clout, you may ultimately need to retreat in order to avoid causing any more harm to your reputation.

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