By Twan van de Kerkhof

Everybody wants to innovate. As a consequence innovation has become like motherhood and apple pie: everybody likes it and you cannot be against it. But innovation is not easy. It needs the active support of leaders.

The most important conditions for innovation are space for free spirits and the willingness to collaborate. Free spirits are necessary to think outside the box, to get away from ‘we have tried this before, it doesn’t work’. Free spirits have the courage and curiosity to question. They don’t accept the status quo.

Willingness to collaborate is another condition. Thinking together is by definition more fruitful than thinking alone. As A.G. Lafley, the very successful CEO of Procter & Gamble, said: “Many of the failures of innovation are social failures”. People often just don’t talk to each other or aren’t really open to  new ideas from colleagues. This was also demonstrated by research from Erasmus University Rotterdam in 2011. According to professor Henk Volberda social innovation – in the forms of smarter work, a more flexible organization and dynamic leadership – is much more important than technological innovation.

For many large companies neither of these conditions is easy to fulfill. Free spirits are always in danger of being ousted. Systems don’t like elements that are different from the majority; they consider them as dangerous viruses and always try to expel them. Successful companies have cult-like cultures, Jim Collins and Jerry Porras wrote in ‘Built to Last’.  Those cultures are very powerful because they attract the right people but they carry the inherent danger of becoming uniform and losing their diversity. The other pitfall of large companies is red tape and bureaucracy. Renewal is killed before it even gets the opportunity to get approval from top management.

This is where the active support of leaders comes in. Leaders have to protect the free spirits in their organizations. Companies like 3M and Google thrive by giving employees with fresh ideas all the space they need. At Heineken they used to call their free spirits ‘ponytails’. Managers at the beer multinational are usually clean-shaven and neatly groomed. Karel Vuursteen, one of the former CEOs, once told me that he considered it his duty to protect the ponytails. Every system needs its own ponytails to enable innovation and renewal. His successor, Anthony Ruys, actively showed his approval for experiments with the Beertender, a product which was frequently in danger of being killed because lower managers thought it was not like anything Heineken should do. Against the current the product was launched and turned out to be a huge success.

Leaders don’t have to be in the laboratories themselves but they should see to it that fresh ideas are not killed in the everyday habits of the system. They sometimes have to probe beyond their direct reports, have to be open for unconventional wisdom and have to protect their ponytails.

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