By Edgar Papke. What are the traits of an organization’s or team’s culture that most influence the ability of its people to innovate? What separates leaders of innovation from their competition? All too often, we look to the physical environment for the answers, relying on providing unique workspaces, furnishings, engaging colors, fun play areas, and unique applications of technology. Yet among the factors of culture that contribute to, or inhibit innovation and creativity, none is more telling as communication. And of the behaviors that effect that communication, none is as powerful as listening.
Starting with the basic premise that business is the most advanced form of art we engage in as human beings, success depends on the creativity and innovation of the artists. This requires an environment in which they can freely be imaginative, inventive, and without the fear associated with the risk of being genuine and authentic.
This is an important aspect of organizational and team culture too often overlooked and far too frequently given lip service to. Think how often leaders encourage their employees, staffers, and team members to “think outside the box” and “take risk”, or express themselves openly only to ignore them when they do act expressively and creatively, or with unbridled imagination. One of the true keys to the successful innovation of any organization or team is the ability of its members to express their creative thoughts openly and without fear. This puts the act of listening square at the center of innovation itself. An unheard idea is an unheard opportunity.
There are a number of reasons listening is such a powerful force behind innovation. At the core, it begins with how artists relate to and are motivated by being listened to. In the end, all artists want to be heard, regardless of the form it takes. Much like painters want to talk through their brush and canvas, engineers display their creativity through fantastic displays of technology and design. At the core of this motivation is our desire to be paid attention to and the belief that we have something of value to offer. Beginning with early childhood, we live under the assumption that we will be paid attention to. Throughout our lives, we measure our self worth by how well we are heard.
Having our ideas heard and paid attention to are also powerful ways through which we allow ourselves to feel competent and contributing. Sure, at the end of the day, not every idea or suggestion is a good one. Yet, how will one know unless it is heard? Most often, an idea is a seed from which better ideas germinate and offers the opportunity for exploration and the resulting innovation. A new idea is the first flicker of light that may also present a challenge that stimulates additional thinking and discovery. Not to mention the times when a group of people find themselves in search of the next idea or struggling to move forward.
Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to work with a good number of innovative, high performing teams. They not only benefited from struggling now and then. They all conveyed a sense of shared understanding that creativity is the building of one idea on another and was often the direct result of their shared struggle, until one person taking a risk sparked a desperately needed spark of invention. Not every idea is the winner. Creativity and innovation are continuous works in progress and can only come about as team members and their leaders truly listen to and hear one another. And often struggle together.
Innovation is the product of our desire to fulfill a higher need, pursue a calling, or simply to compete and win against our competition. It’s important to recognize the importance listening has in motivating one another to feel involved, to have a sense of competency and contribution, and to engage one another in the unbridled ability to take risk and unleash our individual and collective inhibited imaginations.
All the great leaders of innovative cultures that I have had the pleasure to work with over the past twenty-plus years all share a common trait. It is the ability to listen and invite others to continuously explore and discover new ways to think. They are all much more about inquiry and asking questions than telling and critiquing. They challenge not through demand, rather through constructive questioning and respectfully paying attention to what others have to say and the ideas they have to offer. They all demonstrate an ability to listen and encourage others to share their ideas. They also know it’s far better to be a listener that motivates innovation than being a poor listener that is forced to deal with team members that are angry at being ignored or unheard, and that play out their resentment and anger by channeling their creativity into waging destructive conflict, or choosing to not engage at all.