Innovation Management: Loose Tight Leadership

Posted by: Nigel Girling Post Date: 22nd May 2015

It seems everyone is talking about “innovation” in their organisation. It’s almost as though it’s become a mantra or holy-grail.

The trouble is, innovation isn’t an action. It has a lot to do with organisational culture and climate, and that is shaped substantially by leadership style, and attitudes to things like structure and hierarchy.

All of that means that any leader setting out to drive innovation might well be doomed to fail, because innovation isn’t an input, it’s an output, resulting naturally from the presence of many other things.

Loose-tight leadership

Innovation Management: Loose Tight Leadership

A neat phrase used by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman in their seminal 1982 book, In Search of Excellence, sums it up well for me: “loose-tight”. As a leader, if you want innovation, you first have to create the space and freedom – the “loose” approach that enables people to talk and share in the hope that some new ideas might result.

This phase of generating and sharing ideas must not be tightly controlled. Indeed, doing so is a very good way of ensuring that innovation will definitely not be the result. Forms, institutional meetings and the application of rigid process have no place here. If you are that kind of organisation or that kind of leader, then you have a lot of undoing to do before you can even begin to attempt to fuel creativity.

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The decline of management

In the last few years, our understanding of neuroscience has increased substantially. Much of what we have believed for decades to be true about the way we process information or respond to stimuli is being adapted or even abandoned. Leadership and management itself is in transition from the 20th century paradigm of command and control based on hierarchy, compliance and repeatability, to a more collaborative, agile, intelligent approach, more suited to an educated and independent-minded 21st century workforce.

Much of what we call management was created in a time when workers were unskilled or semi-skilled, poorly educated and employed to carry out tasks in a repeatable and predictable way. Many of today’s organisations require highly capable employees who can make decisions and think creatively to solve problems. The trouble is, we haven’t all made the shift in mind-set and structure necessary to facilitate the change, and are seeking to be creative (or at least to demand creativity) within structures established to provide control.

Retaining some balance

Some “tight” control needs to remain, but usually after the fact, once creativity has taken place, in order to test and turn that creativity into innovation. This involves taking the idea, ensuring it will work and making a product or service out of it. Loose can work, at a push, without tight, but tight definitely can’t work without loose. The advanced skill is the ability to have both.

Achieving the right balance of tight and loose leadership approaches is explored in depth on our leadership and management mentoring programmes, through which you will gain an internationally recognised Chartered Management Institute CMI) qualification. To find out more, get in touch below.

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