ATTITUDE EATS SKILLS FOR BREAKFAST (why innovation leaders should refocus)

Mr Pafford was the most intimidating teacher at my school. He taught Geography and coached the Under 16s rugby team. He was short and Scottish with a very very loud voice, and the right half of his ginger beard was white. Legend had it that he had been hit on the head with a javelin at sports day and had had a stroke. Nobody would dream of confirming this with him though.

I was walking back to the changing room at the end of trying out for Mr Pafford’s rugby team when I heard him shout my name. I feared the worst but instead he told me that I had huge potential and was good enough to play for my county (the English equivalent of state). I was blown away. If Mr Pafford thought this it must be true. That season was the best I’d ever played. I trained hard to live up to his billing. I took more risks and pushed the boundaries of my abilities. And at the end of year I was indeed selected to play for the county rugby team.

It was not my natural ability that got me there; I believe it was the attitude that Mr Pafford had created in me. He gave me self-belief and energized me to give 100% and this made all the difference. In other words, my attitude was more important than my ability.

It is often the same with innovation. Sure, some people are born more creative; the Einsteins of this world are wired differently and able to effortlessly make radical new connections. But actually most people I meet have similar ability to innovate and what matters more is degree of confidence in their skills and their motivation to give everything they’ve got and push themselves out of their comfort zones. The implication of this is that leaders of innovation might be well advised to spend at least as much time building attitudes as they do building skills and directing activities.

So where does attitude come from? The answer is experiences. Experiences lead to feelings, feelings create attitudes, and attitudes drive behavior.

Consider my experience with Mr Pafford. He choreographed a powerful positive experience that led to me feeling confident and motivated, which created a strong attitude towards playing rugby and drove me to apply and extend myself in ways that I probably would not otherwise I have done. This behavior then in turn meant that I had more positive experiences and the whole cycle began again and became self-fulfilling. Powerful stuff.

So with this in mind, how can leaders create strong positive attitudes towards innovation. Here are four practical tips for how to lead for attitude:

1.     Create safe opportunities to experiment. Give people space to gradually build their confidence. Take the spotlight off and encourage baby steps on non-critical projects, trying out new tools and behaviors one-by-one without attempting the entire process too early.

2.    Reward attempts to try something new. When you see someone taking a risk and pushing out of their comfort zone, publically pat them on the back to reinforce that behavior and stimulate repeat.

3.    Reframe negative experiences as part of the process. If something doesn’t work, make sure everyone is clear that this is just part of the creative process. Re-express failure as learning.

4.    Take risks and make mistakes. The best way to encourage bravery is to go there first yourself. Showing people it’s ok to be imperfect is the best way to create a culture of experimentation and creativity.

Channel Mr Pafford and you can turn everyday ability into exceptional innovation performance. If it worked with me it can work with anyone.