Servant Leadership Empowers Innovation

Organizational Renewal
servant leadership empowers innovation x

2020 has been a year like no other. From the serious implications to people’s health to the ripple effect on companies around the world, every industry in all areas of the business is facing unprecedented challenges and enormous levels of rapid change and uncertainty. That said, challenging times create opportunities for organizations to review the tenets of the way they think, collaborate, innovate and serve. How companies respond to and anticipate customer needs in the future depends on a leader’s willingness to examine their own leadership philosophy and approach, such as:

  • How do we serve and anticipate the needs of our customers and markets?

  • Are we creating an environment where teams feel safe to fail, learn and try again; taking responsible risks to create and innovate when there is so much shifting?

  • How can we increase the level of transparency and trust across the organization to speak up if a project is failing?

  • How can we not simply survive these unprecedented challenges but create opportunities to promote innovation and risk taking to thrive for years to come?

Today, facing the uncertain economic environment, we need to put innovation at the forefront of our thinking about the future. In this article, I will discuss a leadership mindset on how we should consider nurturing innovation during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

I would like to promote the philosophy of Servant Leadership. Servant leadership is a management style in which you lead by putting the needs of your team first. Servant leaders believe that when their team members feel personally and professionally fulfilled, they not only produce higher quality work more efficiently and productively, but also, feel empowered to create and think differently.

Servant leadership can create a work environment in which employees at all levels of the organization feel respected, appreciated and valued. In my experience, companies that follow a servant leadership philosophy tend to have stronger work cultures with high employee morale and engagement. All of this results in more thoughtful risk-taking, creativity and innovation.

Innovation: Outside-In or Inside-Out?

I am a great believer in deep customer discovery as the key driver of innovation. That is the Outside-In model of innovation, though it is not always the whole answer. Outside-In requires us to look at problems from multiple perspectives, it asks us to scan wider and develop better external peripheral vision, so you can see around the corner and act faster. Seeing from an Outside-In approach enables us to see through the eyes of another.

Whether you manufacture highly sophisticated engineering products or services or are exploring a new go-to-market strategy, it is not always easy to predict what customers will need next and why. Of course, we talk to them constantly, trying to understand their current and emerging problems, to discern not only what they want, but also, what they really need (which is often not the same thing).

As a leader, it is my responsibility to visualize both the customer problems and the solutions we can provide. I want to understand why our client experiences this problem and, if needed, to challenge their vision of possible future solutions. (Remember Steve Jobs: “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them”?)

Testing Assumptions Is A Key

Whether you are an Outside-In or Inside-Out innovator, the point is that you need to challenge your own assumptions. Coming up with new ideas is only the first step in a long road to innovation success. Incubating these ideas into viable product concepts is crucial – and extraordinarily difficult.

Every new idea usually comes with embedded (and often quite strong) assumptions: what we believe our customers want, the possibilities of what our business can do, and what we believe the markets will accept. Before we can move on, we must thoroughly test each assumption.

It is also critical to think about feasibility. Unfortunately, not everything is possible. We should ask ourselves important questions, such as do we have a capability to create what we have conceived, and do we have an ecosystem of partners and suppliers to help us reach the finish line?

And, as a leader, I need to look even further ahead. Will we be able to scale the potential new business? Will we find paying customers? Will the innovation sustain beyond the next product and continue to add value to our customers over time? Neglecting to answer these questions at this point may result in costly failures in the future.

Replacing Certainty with Probabilities

Not testing assumptions – and, therefore, investing before learning – is a frequent mistake. As I mentioned earlier, we must be willing to re-examine how we think, collaborate, innovate and serve.

Many organizations struggle with terminating floundering projects because of “the sunk cost fallacy.” People are people, and having spent time, resources, and emotions on a project, they often defend not the project per se, regardless of its performance, but their prior decisions about it. Often there is fear in speaking up. Organizations plan for success; they do not consider potential failure and how to quickly learn and move forward.

We need to grasp the fact that there is little certainty in the innovation process. We should replace certainty with probabilities and think in terms of milestones. A clear set of criteria for success or failure, ideally quantitative, must be articulated from the start. Every project should be periodically reviewed, and if it fails to achieve a predetermined milestone (say, reaching at least 80% of improvement in performance), it must be nixed.

This is tough and arduous work. But there is no other way to innovation success.

There Is No Innovation Without Leadership

As a leader, it is my job to hold the tension around probabilities. I do not want to force people to commit to goals that they do not really understand and make them victims of the sunk cost fallacy. I am a servant leader. A leader who serves the customer, the team, and the whole organization.

That means creating an atmosphere of trust and confidence, so that people are not afraid to take calculated risks outside their comfort zone. People need to feel that their leaders are accessible to them. I am always ready to intervene to provide help and replace any rosy pictures with a healthy dose of reality. Doubt is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign of learning. It is my job to create an environment and culture for the team to continuously learn and grow.

Innovators need inspiration, a burning desire to change the world and go an extra mile to achieve your goals. They also need discipline to operate with defined success criteria and good project management methodology. These two together create a winning mindset. That is the work of the servant leader. This makes it possible to challenge strongly-held assumptions, learn, prevent thinking traps or biases, and innovate faster to deliver astonishing results.

I look forward to talking more about the many new opportunities in leading innovation at a webinar panel discussion on corporate incubation, along with Professor Charles O’Reilly from Stanford GSB, organized by Change Logic, a strategic advisory firm.


View Webinar

By Yusuf Jamal, Senior Vice President & General Manager – Devices and Platforms Business Group, Western Digital