Fostering Innovative Culture without Overwhelming

color-runI was a cross country runner in high school. It’s one of those sports where you compete as a team and as an individual. As an individual, one is always striving to achieve a personal record (PR)–the fastest time ever to run a set distance. For cross country coaches, you want your team to score well over all and to do so, you need each of your runners to PR. On top of that, each of your runners may require something different from the coach to achieve that goal.

Some runners are naturals–they PR each race and are naturally fast. The coach gives advice to gain that competitive edge–but let’s be honest–really they just need to get out of the way and let them run.

Other runners need a bit of encouragement. The coach can see the potential for the runner to do great things–but they have to motivate them to train and be ready for the race. These runners need help to stay the course and not give up.

Then there are the frightened runners like me. I was always afraid I would go out too fast and I would die in the last mile of the race. So, I’d go out in a conservative first mile pace saving myself for the big finish. My coach had to help me believe that I could run that first mile faster and still have a big finish. He had to tap into my competitive nature and give me a number of runners that I had to pass by the end of the race. And guess what? I always passed the number of runners he gave me.

How does this relate to leading an organization and creating an innovative culture? As leaders we have to remember that we have all different types of runners on our team. We have to focus on the pace of the team and what pace is appropriate for the team. If we are going on a team run and not all of the runners on the team can keep pace, then the pace of the team has to shift.

But we aren’t always on team runs. We can’t lose the fact that the team is made of individual runners each with their own needs. If we always ran as a team we would neglect the development of individual members and stifle their ability to succeed.

Some we just need to let run and get out of their way and they will do great things. They have great ideas, need little from us to develop the ideas, and they are able to execute those ideas successfully. As coaches, we have to help these runners learn to function as part of a team while still achieving their individual PR. We have to make sure they have the tools and resources available to them, and then watch them create. If a leader can tap into these talents and help this type of runner mentor other team members–the team becomes more cohesive and stronger.

Other runners on the team can become frightened of these naturals. They may want to try to keep pace with them but become quickly overwhelmed causing them to back down from the challenge. We have to provide support and encouragement to these runners to help them take risks and try to keep pace while recognizing it is not failure to slow down and still succeed, but at their own pace.

As the organizational leader who desires a culture of innovation, it is imperative that you keep sight of the big picture. Anticipate the challenges your team members will face. Monitor at key points in the race the progress of team members to see who needs motivation, coaching to slow down a bit, or encouragement to keep up the hard work. When obstacles spring up along the course (and you know they will), don’t panic–look for solutions and implement them. And when as leaders we become ecstatic at the culture of innovation that is being developed–remember that in our excitement we must also temper the amount of change as even when change is desired a high volume of change at one time stresses an organization.

“The world is like a mirror; frown at it, and it frowns at you. Smile and it smiles, too.” – Herbert Samuels

(Picture taken at the Color Run in Chicago–awesome time running as a team with friends!)