I recently attended a panel of leaders from Chevron and Genentech talking about “Developing Leaders of the Future in Times of Change.” Jointly sponsored by the HR Forum and BOLD, the event drew over a hundred people together to explore the topic. At the end of the panel discussion small groups self-selected to discuss key concepts raised during the presentation. Our table selected the topic of innovation, specific to developing leaders’ potential for being innovative, and their ability to promote and encourage employee innovation. Each table group had 10 minutes for discussion, at which point everyone could stay or travel to different table for another 10 minute round. So for over 20 minutes we had the pleasure of exploring and grappling with this concept of innovation.

While many ideas were generated, the two that struck me as front and center to innovation were the concepts of language and structure. Language is the fundamental basis for our ability to interact with each other. We use words to navigate and determine shared meaning. And when we don’t have this shared meaning, we are dancing around words trying to figure out what they mean to us, as well as those we are engaged with. As an example, our table participants were interested in hearing what different companies were doing, through their development programs, to enable leaders and employees to be more innovative. And while this was mildly interesting, the more dynamic conversation emerged when someone asked, “So how do you define innovation? What does it mean to your leaders?” What emerged was a highly generative discussion to try and figure out what constituted innovation. Everyone at the table had their own interpretation, shaped by their background, experience and cultures of companies they came from. What emerged is the revelation that until commonly used terms, such as “innovation,” are defined within the organizational context, those tasked with either leading or implementing will struggle to understand the meaning and how to be effective.

The other concept we explored was this idea of structure. Typically when the word structure is used it conjures images of heaviness, squelching creativity and confining innovation. For this reason phrases such as “out-of-box thinking” or “thinking outside the norm” have entered the lexicon. Yet as one person shared, “When you impose a structure, provide boundaries for people to be creative, they amaze you with infinite possibilities and creative ideas.” What came to me was the segment from the Apollo 13 movie when the NASA engineers are tasked with designing a carbon dioxide filter that the Apollo 13 astronauts could construct, using only the supplies immediately available to them. They were given a sense of purpose, time restriction, supplies available, and clear expectations. The results – they accomplished the impossible. And in truth, isn’t that what innovation and creativity is all about, crossing the boundaries of what’s possible to the impossible or unimagined. And while too rigid a structure may dampen innovation, the absence of structure will eliminate innovation and invite the rule of chaos.

Our group agreed that, while there is much more that can be explored with respect to innovation, when you take time to define what is meant by innovation and provide malleable boundaries that offer a structure, the ability for both leaders and employees to innovate and be creative flourish.

Thanks to You Tube, here is the segment referenced from the Apollo 13 move – Let’s build a filter