When discussing service leadership traditionally, topics such as strong communication and a focus on change management and employee engagement have been top of mind. These things remain incredibly important, but the reality is, what is demanded of service leadership today has evolved along with the industry. In the experience economy with service as a strategic differentiator, innovation is essential. And it turns out, the traits that make a strong operational leader are not the same as those that leaders of innovation possess — in fact, they are often at odds with one another.

One of my favorite sessions from IFS World Conference this October in Boston was by Linda Hill, Co-Founder of Paradox Strategies and Harvard Business School Professor who specializes in innovation. Linda brought to light a number of points on how to effectively lead innovation that I think are especially important for service leaders to be considering. She talked about the concept of the performance gap versus the opportunity gap – the performance gap being the difference between where you are now and were you think you should go, which is a value creator. The opportunity gap is the difference between where you are now and were you could go, which is a game changer.

On the topic of building competitive advantage, Linda reviewed a scale of today versus tomorrow. Moving from execution to innovation, from setting direction to shaping context. From focusing on where we’re going to focusing on who we are. Maximizing differences, rather than minimizing them. Shifting from followers that execute to communities who innovate.

Building that sense of community, according to Linda, is the intersection of purpose (why you exist); shared values (what we agree is important) – such as bold ambition, collaboration, responsibility, and learning; and the rules of engagement (how we interact with each other) – such as respect, trust, influence, seeing the whole, questioning everything, and being data-driven.

A culture of innovation is a big adjustment for many service organizations – an evolution from doing to thinking, from effectiveness to experience, and from delivery to discovery. But moreover, it’s a challenging call for service leaders. The strengths that made these leaders successful at operational excellence and managing change are still incredibly valuable, but far different from the strengths needed to successfully lead innovation. “Leading change is about getting people to follow – using muscles. Innovation is far different – rather than minimizing differences, you want to amplify them,” says Linda.

She also points out that innovation is meant to be done collectively, it is an everyone job. “Innovation is emotionally and intellectually taxing, so you need a sense of community. With innovation, there’s no such thing as too many cooks in the kitchen – every viewpoint is valuable. It’s the leaders job to balance and harness this,” Linda says. She went on to discuss some of the aspects of innovation culture that a leader will want to unleash versus harness:

  • Unleash the individual, harness the collective
  • Unleash support, harness confrontation
  • Unleash learning and development, harness performance
  • Unleash improvisation, harness structure
  • Unleash patience, harness urgency
  • Unleash bottom-up thinking, harness top-down
I think another important element of building a culture of innovation is to eliminate the fear of failure and make clear the desire for all opinions and contributions. Many service teams have been programmed, intentionally or unintentionally, to “do their jobs” and not ask too many questions. This is the complete opposite of how you want to promote innovative thinking. You want to make it clear to your employees that you welcome and value all of their thoughts, opinions, and ideas and you want to take the pressure of failure off of their shoulders, because that fear of failure will inhibit innovative thinking.

There’s no denying that service leaders today are challenged! I highly suggest checking out Linda Hill’s work – this brief synopsis of her World Conference session I’m sure doesn’t do justice to the wealth of knowledge that she is. You can learn more at http://www.paradoxstrategies.com/.

Sarah Nicastro

Creator, Future of Field Service