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[RMIT MANAGER, ORGANISATIONAL DEVELOPMENT ERIN FREEMAN TALKS TO DR ANDY WEAR, SENIOR LECTURER LEARNING & DEVELOPMENT, ON A SPLIT-SCREEN VIDEO CALL]
[ERIN FREEMAN IS SHOWN SEATED IN AN OFFICE. SHE SPEAKS DIRECTLY TO CAMERA]
Hi Andy. It's such a pleasure to have you joining us on the leadership series today. This is partly your baby as much as it is mine and it's lovely to be interviewing you as a subject matter expert today instead of you being the interviewer.
[Dr Andy Wear]
It's nice to be here.
I wanted to talk to you about innovation and creativity because that's really your wheelhouse. So, in terms of innovation and creativity, if we think about in terms of leadership – they’re kind of referred to a lot as desired or aspirational traits, but they don't always come with a clear definition. Why do you think this is?
[Dr Andy Wear]
Thanks Erin, yeah it's a really interesting question. I recently did a study on how innovation is projected in Australian universities, and one of most interesting findings is that, of course, every single Australian University claims to be innovating.
And when you get the situation where everybody's innovating, you start wondering what it actually means. Especially, when you find out that they're all innovating in different ways. And I think this is one of the problems – and creativity also suffers this. There are these two highly marketable or aspirational traits or qualities that people want to have and be showing off to the world.
And yet it seems like it's just enough to say “we're innovating” or “we're creative”, without any definition, and that's where you get a lot of the, I suppose, skepticism or cynicism around innovation, creativity, because it does become a buzzword and that is a big problem
So Andy - what can leaders do then in your opinion to cultivate innovation within the team or more broadly within the organisation?
[Dr Andy Wear]
So, I think definition is really where you got to start. What you find is that people often confuse or conflate notions of innovation. People think about disruptive innovation or an innovative product, and they don't always understand that with innovation, you can be talking about the process or innovating in the way we communicate. For example, the way we've all learnt really quickly how to use Teams: it's completely changed the way we think about how we interact as a team.
So these sorts of things can either be immediate as we all had to learn really quickly or they can be incremental changes. So I think if you say to your team or your group, or whoever it is that you're leading, “What is it that we mean when we say we want to innovate or we are innovating”. And if it's around what we want to think of new ways of operating or if it's thinking about how we want to develop a new product, getting a common language or a common narrative around that is a really good start.
Obviously, the second thing that's really helpful is to have trust within the team. I know that in the Leadership Series, we have talked about building trust within the team, so I’d certainly refer people back to that particular topic. But obviously if you've got trust, then there's that scope to try things, and know that if it doesn't work - because one of the things with being innovative is there's a chance that it might not work - you've got to make sure that everybody's okay with that and understands that, which goes back to that definition.
And I think the third thing is sort of having guiding principles, or some kind of document that you can refer to. I often think of this as just “the what”, “the how”, “the where”, “the who” – these sorts of things.
You know: “When” are we going to do this? How about every second Thursday between 11 and 12 we bring a cake and talk about you know what it is we're doing and can we do it differently.
“Who” – for example, who's going to lead this project? It might be going back to the distributed leadership model. You might have somebody in your team who really wants to grab the sort of bull by the horns and go with it, and that can be the go-to person.
“Where” – where do we store our files and documents and resources, if we find really great websites or really great journal articles or something.
So, it's about having something that kind of builds some parameters around it. Even though innovation and creativity are often perceived as this kind of freestyling, freewheeling space, it actually does help to have some parameters around it so that you can build that culture where people feel comfortable and confident to do it.
I might pick up on a point you just made about ‘”the who” - who should be doing it, and that point around distributed leadership and the idea that you might have other people operating in a leadership space within your team.
It makes me think about the leaders that sort of say things like “I'm not creative” or “I'm not innovative”. For those leaders, what would you say to those leaders that say that?
[Dr Andy Wear]
Yes, we've all heard someone say, “I'm just not the creative type” or “It's not my thing” and that's fine. (While I would sometimes beg to differ, that's another topic altogether.) Because I think we develop these ideas about ourselves based on previous experience rather than what's real.
I think that people are a lot more creative than they give themselves credit for sometimes, but I do understand that people can hit these kind of blockers about themselves and I'd say it's a really good opportunity like I said, to think about other people in your team.
I think there's a really good example of somebody who is a real precise person, “I'm just not creative”. This person I worked with once, we kind of had this kind of joke about how they had this diary; that they were tied to their diary, every single thing they did was, you know, 11:45 meeting here 12:15 here. You know, eat my lunch at this time. It was so regimented and strict. And some of the feedback that this person got in one of their team meetings (they were our leader) was, you know, kind of “loosen up a bit” - in friendly terms!
Anyway, he went through this process where for one day of the week, he said, I’m not going to carry my diary around with me, and I'm going to try and open up my time and space to the team. Now, that actually was really amazing because, at first, he was quite a bit discombobulated about it, but it did open up space where people felt like they could come and talk to him without, you know, impinging on his regulated time. And it was a space where there was a bit more fluidity and a bit more change in the way we operated as a team. And I think he learned something from it as well about himself and different ways of operating. So that wasn't an innovation as such, because he wasn't doing anything new in terms of changing the organisational dynamics, but it was a creative response to a problem. He thought it through and generated a solution to something that was a real blocker, and it taught him something about himself, you'd open up a new space for the team and you know it was an example of someone who claimed they weren't creative, but realized that all they had to do was just make a small change and it opened up - I wouldn't say the floodgates - but it was certainly the start of something.
I think that’s so true, isn’t it, because sometimes I think people get bit afraid of the idea of innovation - that innovation means you have to make these huge grand kind of changes to systems. And sometimes those small adaptive, kind of, incremental changes that just improve a process or improve the way that we do something or improve experience for our students or our colleagues - all those little changes can really be great innovations too. And making innovation more accessible to everyone to just try and adapt and little change a little is really important from a leadership perspective.
Yeah, look I absolutely agree. I think it is breaking the idea because, you know, we talk so much about disruption. You know the whole “uber-fication” of the market. And you know it has been something that's been adopted as a sort of a marketable quality or trait. And I think that's missing the point a bit –particularly in somewhere like a university, which operates differently and has different drivers and certainly different stakeholders and different kinds of leaders.
So, I think, thinking more about it incrementally, thinking about the small changes we can make with an eye on improvement, rather than thinking that we've got to, you know, completely reinvent the wheel and come up with something new every day is a good way to start. I just realized as I was speaking the sunshine came gleaming through my, my window here so I'm not sure what that's doing to the light but you know it feels appropriate for this conversation.
Nice see a bit of sunshine on a gloomy day anyway. So thank you so much for talking to me today. I really appreciate it and we want to say more of your topics on the leadership series.
[Dr Andy Wear]