In 2016, the educated expectation was that it would take approximately a decade before Boston Dynamics' Atlas robot would be able to perform a backflip. This expectation was based on a loose timeline determined by the results of testing around the balance and performance of earlier prototypes. Boston Dynamics achieved this goal in 2017
In 2017 Boston Dynamic released a video of their Atlas robot performing the backflip. There’s something a little unnerving in the viewing, perhaps it’s the stark warehouse setting or, and more likely, the many years of cinema conditioning that has shown us the worst possible outcome of increasingly mobile robot armies. However, in no way does this deter from the incredible achievement of Boston Dynamic, a group who despite being leaders in their field, modestly state, they ‘began as a spin-off from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.’ They responded to an opportunity underscored by questioning and curiosity.
Notably, included at the end of the Atlas backflip video, the group show a number of failed attempts. This corresponds to a point I often make about leadership, if you provide your team with generic questions, you should expect generic responses. Boston Dynamic’s aren’t just celebrating the destination, they are sharing the journey. This is a fundamental feature of excellent innovation leadership. Innovation is about pushing boundaries, engaging with failure as a learning opportunity and embracing a diverse range of experiences.
Culturally, and especially in business, leaders are often presented as refined, slick heroic entities.
We like heroes who overcome adversity, but we generally prefer to engage with the successful final product. Unfortunately, this presents aspiring innovators with an unattainable goal. I often include these images of Jeff Bezos, side by side, in talks on leadership to show the journey to success and leadership. Most people will have only heard of Bezos, in his role as ‘the richest man in the world,’ but very few people will really engage with the concept of Jeff Bezos, the guy in the dank office wearing a cheap shirt, who poured hours of his life into developing a service/product that is now a global power. This is a significant element of the narrative of success and one which when shared helps future leaders and innovators to recognise the path they can take to achieving their goals. It creates a sense of collaboration between leaders and the future leaders they are helping to shape.
Leadership, indeed, the world is constantly changing, and concepts of hierarchy have shifted greatly in recent years. A position or title does not necessarily determine the level of support and effort achieved and received from staff. If somebody is going to follow because of authority or position in a company, they are also going to commit to achieving goals in a reduced manner. The time of superior/subordinate attitudes is going and repeatedly we see evidence of low levels of staff effort where authoritative or autocratic leadership styles are applied. If you want to achieve maximum effort from an employee, and especially in the area of innovation, you need to work towards achieving ‘buy in.’ Creating an environment where people feel they have a sense of agency and franchise induces a sense of ownership and this is where ‘buy in’ begins.
Primus Inter Pares: The First Among Equals
Leading innovation requires an ever evolving skill set, with a strong emphasis on the narrative of collaboration and communication. Traditional, top down approaches to leadership are insufficient when the aim is to facilitate innovation, incremental or disruptive. Innovation leaders require a capacity for developing environments conducive to productive creativity. Egoless leading is an absolute necessity for successful facilitation in an innovation space. To achieve disruptive innovation, a ‘leader’ must provide stimulus, inspiration and motivation. True innovators embrace a high rate of change and this requires adaptable and agile leadership.
A modern leader doesn’t just seek to hire a curious staff, it is now an important part of leadership responsibility to prompt and promote curiosity. When leading innovation a leader shouldn’t expect a team to arrive mentally stretched and primed for innovation. Leaders need to spend time developing these skills in a team, so that when an opportunity presents itself through active discovery methods, the team are ready to capitalise. There is also the sense that having developed an attitude of active agency, the team are capable of identifying opportunities a leader hasn’t yet recognised. The team are equally comfortable with strategizing and presenting the potential innovation in a space that in conducive to calculated risk taking. There is psychological safety, because modern innovation leadership recognises the benefits of support and collaboration over direction and authority. Collaboration and communication encourages the team to take leaps and drive projects forward and reduces inhibition.
Leadership requires trust, trust in the team but also trust in the leader to support their team. Blame has no place in leadership. Give a team a sense of ownership over a project and they develop personal accountability.
Where an foundation of communication, collaboration and diversity exists, there are opportunities for learning in all directions. I fully recommend an opportunity to engage with Reverse Mentoring. Without wanting to appear over calculating, the team serves as a sensory conduit, you want your team actively engaged with the world they inhabit so they can bring their diverse range of experiences into the group, and from which everyone can benefit. As a leader, I have skills certain team members do not, but I am fully conscious that the reverse of that is equally true. Regardless of seniority, modern leadership should be open to a transactional learning opportunity. The trade of knowledge, regardless of position has incredibly beneficial outcomes for all parties. This is obviously much easier in an environment that already celebrates collaboration. Regardless of the ease, if you take the opportunity to call a younger staff member aside and propose that they can teach you, you’re already teaching them about their value and lessons in leadership.
Reverse Mentoring: You are showing your team that you are an open leader, willing to learn and that you respect their knowledge.
The most valuable lessons in leadership I ever learnt happened every Tuesday and Thursday evening is a bleak community sports center hall in Dublin. John Whelan, a sensational marital artist and coach, would present to our group the highest level of skill and professionalism. His own level of proficiency was exceptional and he pushed us to achieve the same, his expectations were incredibly high, a point I only recognised the benefit of when I trained in other clubs. However, on a weekly basis, he practised new techniques in the hall, he tried new things, failed, improved, tested himself and overcame, all in full view of his students. Like Boston Dynamic, he showed us the goal, but also the effort it takes to achieve that goal.
As a leader, his confidence wasn’t tied up in ego, it was bound to effort and achievement, and his achievements were in many ways the students he produced. He created new leaders, leaders who are confident to try and fail and share those experiences with their students. He repeatedly told me to try to do things my way, his way was his and it worked for him, but we’re different people and my way should work for me. I’ve constantly told clients in both training and business, ‘don’t worry, I’ve done this wrong more times learning to do it right than you ever will. We’re both learning from my failures.’
Celebrate the Failures that made you a leader.