Innovation Leadership: More Than Nodding and Smiling

It’s probably more frustrating because you know it’s happening as it’s happening. There you sit, pouring your heart into an impassioned plea to do this or that. It’s a crazy idea, you say, but it just might work.

And there’s your manager, looking back at you with eyes that betray the fact that he’s not listening nearly as well as he’d like you to think he is. He’s nodding and smiling, sure; but you can tell this is only token acknowledgement of what you’re saying. There’s a certain look that folks get when they’re actually engaged in a conversation, and this guy across the desk from you–he doesn’t have it.

But wait, you tell yourself, he specifically asked us for ideas. He said he wanted us to be innovative.

So you’re puzzled.



Frustration begins to creep in and you’re not even out of the conversation yet. He hasn’t said no. In fact, if you weren’t paying close attention, you’d think he was not only agreeing with everything you’re saying, but also enjoying everything you’re saying. He’s nodding and smiling as you talk, after all.

The conversation ends with your manager rattling off the obligatory Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me. You know how I like employees to innovate. But you already know nothing’s going to happen. You know he just went through the motions.

How do you know? Well, there’s probably a track record there. You can’t even count the number of times your manager and the organization have asked for new ideas, or encouraged employees to innovate, or something along those lines. And equally innumerable are the times that employees have presented ideas to what would appear to be accepting and approving management, only to have those ideas wither and die on the vine from lack of care and attention from enough parties.

Most of us know how this feels. We’ve had it happen at least a time or twelve in our careers. So then my question is this: Why on earth do we do this same thing to our own teams more often than we’d like to admit? Sometimes, without even realizing it, we slip into the very habits that we swore we’d never embrace because we remember how frustrating they can be to a team. 

As leaders, it’s on us to be sure that we’re encouraging our teams to bring new ideas to the table, helping them work and think through the viability of those ideas, and then taking those ideas–together, as a team–and running with them. Innovation isn’t just coming up with a shiny, new idea; it’s making that idea a reality.

14 thoughts on “Innovation Leadership: More Than Nodding and Smiling

  • I’m fascinated by this topic. Philosophically, I totally agree with you. And there’s no quicker way to stifle innovation than ignoring people are trying to be innovative. But to be realistic about it, as a good manager, you can’t let employees chase everything they imagine — or at least I don’t think you can. Finding that balance is truly challenging.

  • I once worked at a place that decided to create a suggestion box for staff to submit issues–with your name or anonymously. TPTB as a group read all of them and created a document with all suggestions (they didn’t address all those submited, and rightly so) and comments from the higher ups. Some things changed, other things they put in writing why such and such couldn’t happen.

    It was a great idea that died quickly. Because position, authority, politics all reared their ugly head and certain people didn’t want to do things just because the staff suggested it. Bad culture.

    Anyway, I had a staff person submit something that I agreed with (and had actually asked for prior and got no where). It was something another VP would have to do (not my direct report)–TPTB as a group thought it was a good idea and got it done. This other VP approached me later and said something along the lines of “why didn’t you just ask for this” (as if submitting ideas and getting a group to agree/disagree was wrong). My very blunt response was “because they knew if they asked directly you would have said no, this way the group decides the yes/no question”.

    The whole point of this was how do stop ideas from dying? By not having one individual stopping the discussion.

  • This article is a true characterization of what has happened to me and countless others. I’ve even been guilty of it. Factors like time, resources, and feasibility kill innovation. Suggestions for changing our behavior in this regard would be helpful!

    Thanks for the article to stimulate conversation.

  • Yes to all. Glad you brought up this topic, and appreciate everyone’s responses.

    It’s about implementation. As brand & identity people, we find that we can put into place all the right guidelines and standards, all the right plans for managing the brand, the proper platforms, only to see companies’ brand management fall apart upon implementation. We’ve seen entire teams, with executive blessing, embrace the ‘new, innovative idea’, run with the tools and assets… then fail to implement them… or ‘wither and die’ over time, reverting back to ad hoc.

    As branding professionals, we’d like to get more clients that involve us with important decisions affecting their brand–perhaps even day-to-day brand management if that is what it takes to help set an example for the the organization.

    Ultimately, the organization needs to embrace a culture of innovation and ideas, following through with implementation, and led by executives that keep their eye on the vision. Organizations with a culture of ad hoc execution need help to change, but intrinsically often resist necessary change, comfortable in the status quo.

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