“Develop a passion for learning. If you do, you will never cease to grow.” — Anthony J. D’Angelo
Innovation is increasingly becoming something businesses strive for, yet most cannot define. Innovation is messy and complex. It is not something that can be scripted with a predictable outcome. It involves throwing out the rules and rethinking solutions. It involves being creative and reaching beyond the 5-year calendar and targeted sales goals. It involves creating a culture that invokes passion, creativity, and thinking.
Innovation is often something that is felt rather than taught. It’s something that happens when a group of people come together to solve a problem. And it often starts at the top, and trickles down to every department of an organization—large or small.
So how do leaders go about creating an environment for innovation and innovative thinking?
Let’s start with the notion that if you can’t lead yourself, then you can’t lead others. This seems fairly simple, yet there are many managers, leaders, and mentors that don’t fit in this category. I’m not indicating that leading people or an organization is an easy task—rather it takes discipline and sometimes re-learning and re-thinking to effectively lead in today’s business environment.
One thing many innovative organizations have in common is that their leaders are action-oriented— meaning, they are willing to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty. They want to get things done, but they also want to learn and get better. This cycle of action is driven by deep passion.
And, if there is one thing people want and expect from their leaders, it’s passionate inspiration. Leaders never stop learning and this passion for learning is contagious.
Leaders are proactive. They don’t stand back and wait for situations to present themselves in order to start learning. They study history, their surroundings, other people and current situations, and they plan for the future. From the outside looking in, it’s become very obvious that most organizational failures are due to leadership failure because these company leaders have stopped being proactive, and instead, began reacting.
While there are leaders today who understand the value of learning and creating environments for others to learn—through training, trial and error, and procedures—I believe these aren’t enough. Many leaders today do not practice what they preach, but innovative leaders hold themselves accountable for the outcomes they seek. This is a huge reason why most innovative leaders are revered by their colleagues: they drive the conversation with their actions.
IBM recently asked 1,700 CEOs in 64 countries about what they want from their leaders. The three leadership traits that most mattered were the ability to focus intensely on customer needs, the ability to collaborate with colleagues, and the ability to inspire, which, in my opinion, is the game-changer.
Here are five ways to always be learning:
1. Learn by doing. There is no better way to learn than through action. With the rise of MOOCs, it’s now very easy to gain new knowledge at minimal cost—all that is needed is time. But, acquiring knowledge without doing is only half the battle. That’s why it’s important to act, learning in the process, while uncovering personal insights. It’s about putting ideas into action.
2. Learn by asking. If you’re not asking questions, you’re not going to find answers. Questions open the mind, and the more questions you ask, the more insights you’ll uncover. The best questions are those that provoke—not with the intent of irritating, but of exploring the boundaries of what is known and unknown. Probe, and then probe some more. The only boundaries that exist are those that go unquestioned.
3. Learn by networking. We all network, however it’s not the size of the network you have that matters, but how diverse it is. To think differently and become more valuable, you need to know and understand multiple topics. You need to develop an idea network, which feeds you insights and ideas, and will keep challenging you and helping you grow.
4. Learn by observing. There is much being said around you, and it has nothing to do with the words people say, but rather how they act. Listening doesn’t just happen with your ears, but with your eyes too. True attention makes use of all of our senses, so make an effort to take a step back and soak it all in—there is a puzzle waiting to be solved.
5. Learn by sharing. Doing is great, but sharing what you’ve learned with others is even greater. When you share your thoughts, ideas, and experiences, your influence expands dramatically, not to mention that you’ll also learn more because others will do the same with you.
Innovation certainly starts from the people at the top—people who need to walk the walk and take responsibility into their own hands to become a champion for change. Curiosity is the engine of creativity and innovation, and if you can be the champion of curiosity, there is nothing that will stand in your way. Get uncomfortable, roll up your sleeves, open your eyes, ask why, then why again, and share what you’ve learned with your network.