Torn Between Innovation and Optimization? You’re Not Alone.

Early in my business career I had a boss whose favorite phrase was “Stay in your lane.” We worked on a chaotic project with lots of blurred lines of responsibility, but it was still ingrained in me early that the path to workplace nirvana is through role clarity and a relentless pursuit of efficiency.

This focus on ever increasing efficiency and productivity became a core tenet of my leadership style as my career progressed. Collaborating with colleagues and engaging with stakeholders were unwanted pit stops. Creative thinking sessions were intended to make people feel involved, not to get us to think differently. The goal was to check boxes and get back to work. Sounds like loads of fun, huh?

Old world focus: optimization

The drive for greater efficiency and productivity is common, and likely among your organization’s top priorities. And yet there’s a jarring dissonance between this popular focus and that of leaders today. While many of us focus on tweaking processes, solving complex business problems, and checking the box on collaboration, the leaders we at Leadership & Co. talk to ask, “Are these the right processes and priorities for us to be competitive tomorrow? What are the problems we should be solving? Are we thinking differently and creatively enough to drive innovation?”

New world focus: innovation

If the business world I started my career in was focused on optimization, then it’s clear today’s business environment is driving towards innovation. Good luck finding a business publication that doesn’t cover innovation or its proxies—automation, digital disruption, or artificial intelligence (AI)–somewhere in its pages. These topics aren’t necessarily new, but they now dominate leader priorities like never before.

This shift is well underway, but many organizations struggle to adapt in this new world. How does an organization make such a dramatic shift from an optimization-focused culture to one that drives innovation?

Perhaps we should look at the recent success experienced by (my hometown) Seattle’s very own Microsoft.

Shifting from old to new

When Satya Nadella became Microsoft’s CEO in 2014, he took took the helm of a firm fading toward irrelevance. To stem the tide, Nadella and his leadership team adapted the concept of Growth Mindset and shifted Microsoft’s “know-it-all” culture to a “learn-it-all” culture of curiosity. The authors of the London Business School study that chronicles this evolution describe how enthusiastically embracing a mindset centered around curiosity dramatically altered Microsoft’s culture and the company’s performance. In just 4 years, the results were staggering: a more engaged workforce, a CEO with a 95% employee approval rating, a booming cloud and AI business, and a stock price that now makes Microsoft the most valuable company in the world.

Was curiosity really Nadella’s–and Microsoft’s–key to success? It wasn’t the only ingredient, but it certainly was a crucial differentiator, as Nadella’s chief of staff, Jill Tracie Nichols, observed:

[former CEOs] Gates and Ballmer were super-smart, driven and hard- charging. Their model was ‘precision questioning:’ picking apart ideas in meetings to test their validity and the presenter’s conviction, and that approach flowed through the organization. Satya models being curious, seeking to learn as people bring him new ideas and information.

Curiosity is key

Innovations—big or small—require a curious workforce. It’s curiosity that drives us to ask questions, think creatively, and muster the courage to explore the unknown. Satya Nadella is a great model for this, illustrated by his first letter to Microsoft employees in 2014:

Many who know me say I am also defined by my curiosity and thirst for learning. I buy more books than I can finish. I sign up for more online courses than I can complete. I fundamentally believe that if you are not learning new things, you stop doing great and useful things. So family, curiosity, and hunger for knowledge all define me.”

We all want to do great and useful things, likely innovative things. And this demands a shift from a laser-like focus on efficiency and productivity to a broader one of curious exploration.

So, one final question: would your employees describe you as curious?

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