The secret innovation skills you need – that are rarely taught

The balance of skills, attitude and experience required depends a bit on what innovation means to your organisation. Sometimes you need to be a product development manager, sometimes a culture change manager, more often both, and on occasion, once you’re in post it’s for you to interpret what the organisation needs and what the senior leadership want – which are often different things. Then there’s the innovation brief that makes my heart sink, ‘we want to innovate and change and disrupt – but we want to be sure it will work’, setting an innovation manager an impossible challenge from the outset.

Sound familiar?

However you choose to approach innovation in your business two things are consistent regardless of what sector or industry you work in.

  • Innovation is about spotting an unmet need or solving a problem. It’s about generating ideas and implementing solutions to make life better for your target audience (and that might be customers, clients and employees).
  • Not all of your ideas or innovations will work.

This means that an innovation manager has to be a lot of things; a diplomat and a dictator, a negotiator with a bloody-minded streak, an ideas person and a completer-finisher, a business analyst and a dreamer, candid and kind, a risk taker who likes a safe bet and possess both gravitas and humility.

The secret skills of innovation are often at opposite ends of a spectrum. You have to be well versed in contrast and contradictions and be able to flex between them in a blink of an eye.

Here are my top tips to thrive in the contradictory role of an innovation manager;

1.   Exude confidence in your approach and also confident vulnerability about what you don’t know. Help people to feel comfortable with diving into the unknown. Help people to learn that it’s OK not to know the answers, and that is part of ‘doing innovation.’

2.   Get a chronic case of ‘toddler syndrome’ and keep asking ‘why?’. Don’t settle for the ‘way things are done here’. Challenge ‘the way we do things here’ at every opportunity and help others to do the same.

3. Become very self-aware, what assumptions or stories do you have that prevent you from doing something new? Keep challenging yourself as well as others to unlearn what you know. Ask, ‘What if we had to start from zero – what might we do differently?’

4.   Be charming and disagreeable. Open up discussions, encourage different points of view and alternative ways of thinking, and do it in a way that others find enchanting.

5.   Take innovation very seriously and also not seriously at all at the same time. You’re looking for an important breakthrough which is serious business, yet our best thinking occurs when we are relaxed and even more so when we’re in a playful mindset.

6.   Be sensitive and thick-skinned – sensitive to the needs of your colleagues and partners. Remember that many people fear change, so tune into and be mindful about how your colleagues are feeling, yet at the same time focus on the needs of your audience, the people that you are innovating for, which sometimes means forging on through despite everything if you are going to deliver on your brief.

7.   Fall deeply in love and be fickle – to innovate, to introduce something new, you have to fall in love to have the passion to keep going to overcome barriers when things get difficult (because things will get difficult). You also have to be fickle and prepared to fail fast and drop your idea if it doesn’t work.

8.   Move fast and slow – turn your ideas into reality as quickly as you can. Don’t wait for perfect and a big launch, involve your stakeholders and your customers as early as possible which can sometimes slow down progress but the insight you gain will be worth the reduction of speed.

9.   Smile, (even if inside you are crying) and be respected for making good decisions and getting the job done rather than being known for being ‘nice’.

10. It’s OK to cry, to be vulnerable and for the idea not to work. The important thing is to share why not and what next so that everyone involved can learn.

11. Focus on why making change happen is important and lead by example. Help to shift the organisational culture to help people have the courage to try, followed by the tenacity to learn from failure and give it another go.

Those soft skills that are rarely taught, they are skills that you learn by trial and error, and that are hard to articulate on a job application. These are the skills that make you a successful innovator. At Lucidity we run training, provide coaching and consultancy on the ‘soft’ skills you and your organisation require to succeed at innovation. If you’d like some help perfecting them then get in touch at hello@lucidity.org.uk.

You might also like the Lucidity Network – a place for people pushing to make change happen, a place to learn, a place to share and a place to connect. Check it out and join us here.

Why watching this movie can help solve your staffing problems…

Like many millions of others, this weekend was planned around a cinema trip to see Avengers: Endgame – the latest instalment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). But as well as the usual dose of superhero satisfaction, I came away thinking how Kevin Feige could teach us more than a thing or two about how to build and retain successful teams.

Feige is the President of Marvel Studios, who in the last 10 years has released 22 hit films grossing over $16billion – the highest grossing film series of all time[1].  This, from a franchise that spent previous decades hovering on the brink between limited success and failure.  Who recalls the 1986 Marvel ‘classic’ Howard the Duck which lost $21m after being panned by the people that mattered, the fans, despite being produced by a living film legend – George Lucas! Or 2003’s Daredevil which was considered so disappointing, its leading star Ben Affleck said: “[Batman’s] the movie I want to do. I want to be a part of that…I hate Daredevil so much”[2]

So from a struggling company, to a stellar performer: what on earth (or if we are seriously embracing the MCU), what on the ‘multi-verse’ has Feige done to drive this sort of turnaround, that we too can learn from?

Plan ahead…

Back in 2007, when my daughter was still trying to choose between Tinky-Winky and La-La and hadn’t even heard of superhero’s, Kevin Feige had a plan for how exactly she (and millions of other teens) were going to spend this weekend. Before the first Iron Man film had made a penny, Feige had planned out not just the next two or three movies, but a decade of interwoven narrative across all 22 films and hit TV series. His plan embraced the existing cohort of superhero movie watchers from 2007, and the future generations of film goers who could be tempted into to MCU.

And isn’t this the job of every great manager? You are employed to see the bigger picture, to know where you’re going, to plan the staffing and skills you’ll need not just now, but for the organisation you want to become.  I’ve seen plenty of organisations with a three-year or five-year plan, but how many organisations do you know with a ten-year plan?  Not many.  And of these forward looking few, how many have a clearly defined staffing plan built into this vision of the future?  Well, I’m struggling to think of one (though excited to talk to you if this is how you are planning!).  Yet, we all accept that our staff are usually our most expensive asset, and the defining difference between success and failure.  And still we tend to have better long-term plans for the office furniture than we do for staff development.

So isn’t it time to learn from Feige, to start planning 10 years out for what we think our people will be doing.  And of course the plan will flex and change along the way, but that doesn’t change the need for a long-term vision. If you are just focussed on your staffing needs today, you’ll never be ready to deliver a future vision.

Be a superfan…

Yes we all know it is possible to just turn up and do the job: no heart, soul or passion required…but why would you want to? If you aren’t invested in what you do emotionally then why would your staff be! Kevin Feige has made no secret that he is a HUGE fanboy. He has been preparing to be President of Marvel Studios from the moment he first sneaked his torch into bed to read comics after lights out. This is a man who still collects the ticket stubs from every film he goes to. He LOVES what he does and this passion is infectious. Many of the A-listers who have become part of the MCU reference Feige’s passion for the project as a key draw:

“When I found that out about him, and seeing the familiar excitement and inner light that comes from a huge fan speaking about how much they love the whole magical world…that really speaks a lot to who he is…I was like YES!” – Scarlett Johansson[3]

Those of us lucky enough to have experienced being led by someone with passion have seen how it injects energy in a team and motivates everyone to be their best.  And with staff identifying ‘belief in what we do’ as a key management skill; it isn’t just about getting the right people, it’s about getting them to stay.  It’s said that people don’t leave jobs, they leave bad bosses and the research backs this up: 61% of those defining their relationship with their boss as ‘bad’ are actively looking to leave this year[4].  So, if you want to attract and keep the top talent in your industry, then try communicating your passion for what you do. If some of your staff don’t share it, fine, these are the ones who are likely to move on anyway.

Don’t plan around the hero’s you don’t have…

By the time Feige started to design the MCU many of the rights to its key characters had been sold off years before when Marvel was in financial trouble. So he faced the prospect of trying to build the most successful movie franchise ever, with a load of second tier characters. But rather than focus on what he didn’t have, Feige put his energy into those he did:

“Yeah, the “B-list characters”… I never really thought that because I knew that Iron Man was really cool and Hulk was arguably, next to Spider-Man, the biggest character we had. The goal was…to make the best Iron Man film we could, and make the best version of Hulk.” Feige [5]

Feige is sharing with us one of the most important lessons here: whatever the quality of the team you have, these are the people you’ve got. Moaning about needing great staff in order to make your targets isn’t going to help. Instead focus on how to make your team great. So, your task as a manager is to work out where to put your energy. Which team members may not be at the top right now but have the potential, or the right attitude, and with training and effort could be your superstars? Investing your time in them now can give you an extraordinary return down the line. And if there are people in the team who are never going to deliver then don’t ignore it.  Do something about it, because whilst performance management is no one’s idea of fun, moving on might be their opportunity to find a role they love and your chance to recruit a new star.

Focus on the individual 

All MCU fans have a favourite ‘origin story’, the films where we are introduced to a character and watch them develop their superpowers.  For Feige it’s Black Panther, but the point is he puts time, love and attention into every origin story.  This is no mean feat when you remember he has been holding that ten-year plan in his head throughout.  He knows where the whole over-arching story is going, yet he has time to focus on each individual character’s storyline, and how they develop over time.  And this is the point; each character is allowed to individually develop within the Marvel universe.  They make mistakes.  They learn. They become better superheros. As Feige says: “I was never cynical about sequels…I was always excited to see how characters I loved would grow and change”[6]

Feige knows it’s important because fans care about this sort of detail.  The little things matter.  And that’s just as true for our staff.  Yes, they want to be part of a great team and contribute to a massive organisational vision.  But they also want to know you can pick them out in a line-up.  So make sure you know the detail; remember to praise individually, comment if they’ve tried to do something new – even if it’s not been successful or everyone else finds it easy – recognise the effort of the individual.  And invest in each person, don’t try and squeeze them into some HR driven organisational development plan that sets out what and when they can learn.  Work out what works for them…and remember it.

A team is stronger together…

Embedded within the MCU are the much-loved ensemble films: the Avenger series where characters across the MCU come together to fight a common enemy.  Those new to the franchise might struggle to keep up when viewing one of these ensemble movies.  They are fast paced with a cast of (what seems like) thousands all of whom seem to be leads and have story arcs that impact on the final resolution.  But what might seem confusing from the outside is actually a team effectively integrating under pressure to deliver a positive outcome.

One of my bosses (a huge Marvel fan) would often call an: “Avengers Assemble”. This was our organisational shorthand for the need for the team to come together to jointly tackle an urgent situation. Sometimes this was a real organisational crisis, sometimes it was when one team member needed the support of others. But it was a recognition of the strength of bringing the team together; uniting the individual skills and talents that each member of your team has into a superhero problem solving squad.  So whether you see yourself as a Kevin Feige or a Nick Fury[7], what are you doing to get your staff to pull together towards a common goal?

And accept the Endgame…

So Feige’s plan always includes an ending, and Avengers: Endgame is it (though for hardcore MCU fans I’m aware this is actually the end of phase three). The end of a 10-year journey, and saying goodbye to some much-loved characters (can’t say who as Thanos has demanded my silence!). Like all great managers, Feige knows that the strongest teams have change and growth built into them. When you are surrounded by fantastic high performing staff you should be planning what happens next – ensure successions plans are in place for everyone.  So if a key staff member is ready to leave you can afford to be gracious. Accept this phase has come to an end and help them move on successfully – if you do they will become advocates for you and your organisation, making the next round of recruitment tons easier.

But it’s never really over…

Feige has already started to reveal highlights from his next five-year plan. It includes new superheros, plenty more special effects and probably many more box-office breaking films. This type of long-term success doesn’t happen by chance. It comes from long-term thinking and planning, staff investment and development, doing the day-job but never forgetting that your team are looking to you to help them see (and be inspired) by the future.

So if you are looking for some help with your staffing issues, why not channel a bit of Marvel this week?  There are 22 good films I could recommend…

 

Vanessa Longley has worked in Fundraising and Communications for over 20 years and is currently researching creative leadership in the charity sector. Her favourite Marvel movie is Doctor Strange.

 


[1] Williams, Trey (6 May 2018). “How Marvel Became a $16 Billion Franchise: Fandom, Cribbing From Comics and Kevin Feige. TheWrap.

[2] Mccluskey, Megan (14 December, 2016). “Ben Affleck on hating Daredevil”. Time Magazine

[3] Joanna Robinson (6th December, 2017). “An extended conversation with Kevin Feige” Vanity Fair.

[4] Barna Group (18th February, 2015).  “The different impact of good and bad leadership”.

[5] Joanna Robinson (6th December, 2017). “An extended conversation with Kevin Feige” Vanity Fair.

[6] Rianne Houghton (12th June, 2018). “Marvel Studio boss reveals best MCU films”. DigitalSpy

[7] For non MCU nerds, Fury is the head of a secretive government sanctioned organisation SHIELD forming strategic alliances with superheros to protect the planet and our current existence.  I could go on…but it’s probably best I don’t!

Expert tips on influencing and managing up

Recently at the Lucidity Network I spoke to fundraiser turned leadership, team and career coach Jennifer McCanna about influencing and managing up.

A big part of any new project or change process (in fact anything involving people) is convincing others that it’s a good idea. You can’t expect anyone to like your new idea or project and therefore making any type of change will involve an element of influencing.

Sometimes when we talk about ‘influencing’ it can feel uncomfortable, like it’s a dark art, manipulative or political. If you ever work with others you will, whether you realise it or not be influencing their behaviour and decisions. It’s not just at that moment when you want someone to get involved in your project, back your idea or see your point of view, we are influencing others all the time through every interaction that we have. We are more likely to influence or be influenced by those that we know, like and trust. It’s your choice to be deliberate rather than accidental about building good relationships. You might even feel more comfortable substituting ‘influencing’ with ‘building good relationships’ – it amounts to the same thing.

Managing up is not just your relationship with your boss; it’s the relationship you might need to have with any senior colleague. It’s easy with senior colleagues to fall into a parent-child relationship. Managing up involves breaking that pattern and having a more equal two-way dialogue. It’s the process of using initiative and communication to lighten your managers, or other senior colleagues’, workloads. It’s about supporting them by identifying and sharing ideas for growth and helping them to achieve their goals. It’s not about doing your managers job, dodging systems and processes or trying to be the boss before you’re ready (and its also not about sucking up).

Jens first tip when it comes to influencing and managing up is to understand your strengths, style and how you come across to others. Until you raise your self-awareness it’s really hard to work on building effective relationships with others. Next, think about the other person. Get in their shoes. What do they what from you? Right now? Do you know? Have they told you? (Hint, if they haven’t then ask them) What’s going on for them specifically as well as what’s going on in the wider context? What do they care about? What are they trying to achieve? What are their drivers? What’s their personal style? What’s their preferred communication style? Are they happier in the mornings or the afternoon? By understanding them, you can adapt your style and ask to meet their needs.

To effectively understand someone else you need to be able to really listen. Listening skills are important and often overlooked. And listening to understand is different from listening to advocate for your own agenda. If you know what’s going on for someone you have a much better chance in positioning something in a way that appeals to them. Spend as much time as you can just listening.

We’re in our head a lot of the time and we often intellectualise about a situation, however the best way to really increase your understanding of the other person is to understand how they feel. Jen and I both do this with the individuals and teams we work with by asking them to role-play being the person they are hoping to influence. Asking questions like ‘How do you feel right now?’ ‘Tell me what life is like for you right now?’ and answering as the other person changes the dynamic completely and creates empathy. One person I did this exercise with could feel, when they played the part of the person they were influencing, how their style had been (inadvertently) threatening the other person. They went back to the person after being them in the role-play and shifted their approach. They got a different response that opened up a dialogue rather than closed it down (which was happening before).

Jen introduced us to another way to see a situation differently by using random objects. Here’s how. Pick up some things that are on your desk, for example, a mug, a pen and a stapler. Use the random objects to play out a scenario with those that you are hoping to influence. For example, the pen might be your director of finance, the mug might be your manager and the stapler might be your director of HR. Place them on the table. Think about how close they are to each other depending on how good their business relationship is. Move the random objects and see what happens. Find a paperclip (that’s you!) to add to the mix. What happens? Ask ‘what if?’ questions. What if we moved the stapler closer, what if we moved the pen nearer the mug? Where are you now? Where do you want to be? Have fun playing with the patterns. Does it give you insight about where you need to invest your time in building relationships?

Think about whom it’s important to have good relationships with to get your job done. Who’s powerful and who will help you progress your projects effectively? Sometimes who you are trying to influence is not linear, it’s not the person at the top of the organisational hierarchy. Alternative structures exist outside of organisational charts. Think about informal relationships, for example, who’s on the softball team, who smokes outside, and who manages the diaries of the senior management. It might be that those are the people to ensure you build good relationships with to influence others.

If you’d like to hear this interview as well as a whole host of other experts on topics including innovation, creativity, making time to think, resilience, failure, networking skills and personal brand then you can find them all at the Lucidity Network. There’s more information and how you can join here.

Be the person others want to work with

A guest blog by Jemma Molloy.

Do you wake up at night wondering how you might connect better with your colleagues? Do you worry if you are communicating well with your team? Do you ever feel like you are not performing at your best?

We lead busy lives. It seems to be expected of us and society reinforces the idea that successful people are busy people. If we have a packed diary, we are doing well. Sometimes it’s almost like a competition – ‘I’m far too busy to go for lunch with the team, I’ve got too much on.’

Sound familiar? The reality is we are more stressed than ever. In 2014/15, according to the Health and Safety Executive for the UK, there were 440,000 cases of work related stress.[1] With a never-ending to-do list and unrealistic targets, tight deadlines and demanding clients we can easily end up feeling like a hamster on a wheel going round and round in circles.

All this stress and ‘busyness’ can make us disconnected from our team members too. We are so caught up ‘doing’ things we don’t notice what is going on around us.

For example, when was the last time you asked a colleague how their weekend was and could remember their answer by the end of the day? Most of us ask these questions out of social politeness, but before our colleague can answer, our brains have moved onto the next thing on our list that we need to do.

How hard can it be to stop and listen? For some of us, surprisingly it’s almost impossible. Why? Because our minds are so used to being busy ‘doing’ we don’t know how to just ‘be’ in the moment.

If we can more deliberately stop and listen when we ask these questions and give our colleagues a few minutes of uninterrupted attention it will make a positive impact on our working relationships. We so rarely really listen to one another uninterrupted it’ll feel almost revolutionary. And better working relationships lead to better results.

When we are ‘present’ in conversations and meetings with colleagues we learn so much more about them. When we know and understand people, we’re able to work more effectively with them. We’ll become recognised as a team player, someone who works with others to get the job done, someone who other people want to work with. And work gets done more quickly when we know and trust people.

How to be the person others want to work with

Be more mindful. Mindfulness is about staying in the present moment and focusing on the person you’re speaking to or task you’re completing, rather than letting your thoughts distract you. Mindfulness is all the rage, and science backs it up. For example, research conducted at Harvard University found we typically spend 50% of our day ‘mind-wandering’ (i.e. lost in negative thoughts about what might happen, or has already happened.) After practicing mindfulness, activity in the part of the brain that focuses on ‘me’ reduces, making us more able to return our focus to the present moment.[2] And to your colleague who is still telling you about their weekend…
Practising mindfulness can be as simple as sitting and counting your breath, and returning your focus to your breathing every time your mind wanders. Or mindfulness can even be achieved by enjoying a piece of chocolate; smelling, feeling and tasting it totally; doing nothing else but that for a whole minute (great news for chocolate lovers!)

Mindfulness is very simple, but like any skill it takes practice to achieve it. Be patient with yourself and keep trying, soon you’ll notice a difference.

Tips on how to practice mindfulness everyday

  • When you’re in a meeting and you notice your mind wander, bring it back to focus on what the person leading the conversation is saying. Don’t reprimand yourself for letting your mind wander, just notice and return your focus to the present.
  • When you’re on the phone, move away from your desk so you won’t be distracted by emails coming in. Focus only on the conversation you’re having.
  • Next time you ask a colleague how their weekend was, focus totally on their reply. Pick up on particular points they are making and repeat them back, or ask a question.

Have a go at mindfulness to increase your effectiveness as a team member. What do you have to lose? Nothing; except sleepless nights.

Jemma Molloy is a learning and development manager at The Children’s Society and an accredited career coach.

[1] http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/causdis/stress/

[2] Adapted from Sane New World by Ruby Wax