Enable innovation; don’t ask for it.

(From my professional site)

Everyone wants their staff to innovate, but how to get them to do it? It’s a popular word: it means “to make changes in something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas or products”. That has consequences.

Be a transformational leader

Obvious? But most organisations force transactional leadership, because it’s easy to monitor.

Have a vision, develop your charisma, provide people with an intellectual challenge, and be there every day, committing to the change: get on with it. Give people personal attention: care that they succeed individually.

How to develop a vision? Well, what are the realities of your situation? What are your goals? Why are they worth working towards? Trite? Are you doing it?

What are your values? Can you stand by them every day? Inspired by aerospace engineering and transferred to software engineering, these work for me:

  • Quality
  • Expediency
  • Rigour
  • Practicality
  • Low risk

No one thanks an engineer for delivering a fighter on time with the wrong mission fit, slightly broken, fragile and fixed badly. No one thanks you for a brilliant academic solution that takes an age to apply. You can’t spend too much money either. Seems applicable to enterprise software engineering to me…

How do you challenge people intellectually? Are you committed yourself?

Your corporation probably manages transactionally. Written goals, far in advance and a bonus scheme. Is this working?

Listen actively

Don’t just have a suggestion scheme and an online forum. Wander about, ask what they are doing, why and how it contributes to the business. What do they think they should be doing instead? What gets in their way?

Who will believe in your commitment to the team if you don’t demonstrate it with active listening?

Love change

If you don’t love the realities of innovation, how will your staff? Find out new ideas and figure out how to apply them without ruining everyone’s day.

Accept failure

Investors know that not every investment pays off: so should you.

Get over failures positively.

Be lightweight

How can you be dynamic if your forms are huge, look a mess and disappear for weeks before there is a decision? Who will report a bug if it takes 20 minutes? Make sure your processes are easy to follow usefully.

Destroy organisational busywork.

Bend the rules

Douglas Bader: “Rules are for the obedience of fools and the guidance of wise men.” He was right, but be careful and maybe be prepared to find a new job if you can’t pull it off. Challenge assumptions, seek opportunities and remove obstacles.

Can you innovate without changing the rules?

Keep people busy

Everyone should be forced to prioritise or who knows how time will be spent. Keep people busy, but only with worthwhile work. Ask people to do the job and to figure out how to do it better.


Think you can change without exploring a few dead ends? Can’t afford the cost of inappropriate change?

Whether improving your process or product, use prototypes. Make a small investment, see if something works and grow from there. It works in industrial design; it works in software engineering.


Centralised decision making opens the risk that one or more misguided individuals can produce a dramatically bad outcome for much larger numbers. On the other hand, involving too many people may lead to indecision.

Collaboration is a no-brainer though, isn’t it? Get the right people involved and let them reach a consensus.

Make work a pleasure

Too many people ask for passion. Passion rarely lasts and it’s usually dramatic! Quiet enjoyment is sustainable, but it is easily spoiled. Can spoilers be encouraged to find fulfillment elsewhere?

Most everyone comes to work really wanting to do something useful and enjoyable: let them.

Know when to stop

Change can be exhausting and, like aircraft wings, people stall: apply too much stress and performance falls off rapidly.


Managers often direct their staff closely and place tight boundaries on what they must do and how they must do it. They tie financial reward to succeeding within those boundaries. They are surprised when innovation fails to appear.

So, if you want someone to run, get out of their way.

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