Innovative Leadership Begins with a Challenging Problem

Innovation Leadership

I had a junior high school teacher that used to occasionally administer pop quizzes at the beginning of class. She stood out as a teacher in so many ways, and one was how she announced these quizzes - she would wait until we were all seated, reach into her desk drawer, and then pull out a small bell. She would then address us all with a warm smile, ring the bell, and announce in a singing voice, “It’s opportunity time!” It was our chance to show what we knew (or did not know).

That was my first (repeated) exposure to the idea that problems present opportunities. They are the dark side of the symbol and principle of Yin and Yang. Now, decades later as an MIT leadership educator, I routinely teach how problems present a unique kind of opportunity – an opportunity for leading innovation.

How many “bells are ringing” in your companies? Many businesses today face more problems than they have time to solve. I hear this often and as a result, people admit how they tend to jump too quickly to solutions (which is often ineffective) or they may ignore problems altogether (which can be worse). After all, we work in fast-paced environment that promotes fast thinking and fast execution.

As one manager recently told me, “I’ve built a culture in my company where people know not to bring me problems – I want solutions!” Does this kind of culture “ring a bell” for you? How can someone competently evaluate a solution without first understanding the nature, source, or root causes of the problem? This traditional “don’t bring me a problem” culture may also be what’s killing creativity in many organizations today.

Fact is, creative cultures drive innovation and leadership drives culture. In order to be an innovative leader, you need to build the capability in your companies to see problems clearly, prioritize them, define them in actionable ways, and then finally engage in the sometimes long and arduous work of solving them. Yet, many people neglect to step back, analyze, and clearly define the problem they are trying to solve. It's a crucial mistake that interferes with finding truly creative solutions that can make a significant impact on organizations.

I’ve watched people fall into these traps time and again in the leadership and innovation courses that I teach through MIT Professional Education. What I’ve learned from teaching leadership and innovation for so many years is that problem solving is both art and science. Leaders are more likely to find truly creative and breakthrough solutions when they apply methods that are rigorous and disciplined – and that’s what we explore in my courses.

Let's face it. We tend to mythologize innovative leaders as those who have a revolutionary vision and stick with it, no matter what. And yes, some leaders really do seem to have all the answers up front, with fully-formed ideas that motivate employees to execute. Others, however, act more as facilitators, assembling talented teams that they rely on to come up with great ideas, and figuring out how to best support them. But some of the most exceptional leaders have a foot in each camp – bringing bold new ideas to the table, but recognizing that the ultimate answer won’t always be their own.

And that's a way of leading worth learning about.

About David Niño

David Niño is a Senior Lecturer in the Bernard M. Gordon-MIT Engineering Leadership Program. He has taught leadership since 1998 at the undergraduate, masters, doctoral and executive/professionals levels. The next session of his course, Leadership & Innovation for Technology Professionals, runs January 7, 2019. For more information visit the course site.

He also leads a short course at MIT, Engineering Leadership for Emerging Leaders, for technology professionals every summer. For more information visit the course site.