Boss Says You Need to Be More Innovative? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I manage an IT group—12 people—that does the tech stack for all supply chain management for a national chain of service providers. We also sell some product, but not a lot. I report directly to the CTO and have a good relationship with him.

At the beginning of the year, after much discussion and review by my boss, I presented my strategic plan to the executive team. They practically yawned. It was so obvious to me that none of them really care—they just want things to go smoothly. Afterwards, my boss told me he needs me to be more innovative in my thinking and planning. This is the first time I have ever received that kind of feedback. I asked for more detail, but he didn’t have much to say to expand on it.

I try to keep up with the constant change in technology, but supply chain management is a not generally thought of as a place to get super creative. I have been walking around thinking about it, and I have no idea what to make of it.

How to Innovate?

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Dear How to Innovate,

Well, at least this is kind of fun—I mean, not a pressing problem that needs fixing right this minute, which is nice. First things first: I do think you need to get your boss to provide a little more context for the feedback. Perhaps he wasn’t prepared the first time you asked, or he didn’t have the language to describe quite what he meant. I will say this: Senior executives in all sectors are experiencing the need for their organizations to be more agile, more responsive, and more creative to stay competitive. So it might be as simple as that—a general directive for everyone as opposed to something specific to you and your work.

The way around this is to ask questions that will help him to put his thinking into words. Here are some that might make his mind pop:

  • What are you not seeing in my current plans that you would like to see?
  • Is it that you need me to cut time or cost out the systems?
  • Can you point me to examples of innovation in supply chains that look interesting to you?
  • If we were more innovative, what would we have that we don’t have now?
  • Do you want to see me express myself more creatively? Or jazz up my presentations?
  • A definition of innovation is “the creation, development and implementation of a new product, process, or service, with the aim of improving efficiency, effectiveness, or competitive advantage.” Which of those dimensions do you think needs the most attention?
  • What would a good job—me being more innovative—look like?

Once you get a little more detail, you will be able to make a plan. Of course, it’s possible your boss still may not have much for you. It simply may have been his reaction to the executive team’s chilly response to your presentation—he hopes you can make your future reports a bit more interesting. (For ideas on how to tell a great story to evoke interest and emotion with presentations, check out Nancy Duarte’s work.)

If you do decide to up your innovation, I have two approaches for you to consider. One is to increase new ways of thinking among your team, and the other is to focus on yourself. I suggest you start with one and see where it leads you.

Ideas to encourage innovation in your team:

  • Explain the objective to team members. If you get some clear direction from your boss, you can use that. If you don’t, you will have to articulate it yourself.
  • Ask your team to practice beginner’s mind. For you, this might mean looking at your entire strategy (which you are probably sick to death of) with a new lens. Ask yourselves:
    • What have we done the same way for a long time?
    • What could we do better, faster, with less effort?
    • What are we doing that we really don’t need to do?
    • What are we not doing that I suspect we should be doing?
    • What did we try once, fail at, and perhaps quit too soon?
  • Start with existing problems or pinch points and decide which to tackle first. There are two ways to do that:
    • Start with the low hanging fruit—little stuff you haven’t gotten around to fixing that has a straightforward solution.
      • Decide to address a big, complicated, systemic issue that has been frustrating your team for a while.
  • Run a design thinking hackathon. Design thinking traditionally has five steps:
    • Empathize (understand the pain point of users or customers)
    • Define (the problem)
    • Ideate (brainstorm ideas)
    • Prototype (map out a solution or a couple of solutions)
    • Test (pick one and test it out)

I guarantee you will hear things from your team you have never heard before.

Assuming your team is mostly virtual these days, if you don’t already use a white board app, there is a free one called scrublr. I have used it with a few teams. It works well and is fun.

  • Run a contest to generate ideas.
  • Create an idea board for your team, either on a Teams site or a shared drive, where people can post ideas—none of which will be judged as dumb or farfetched.
  • Find a fun way to reward the ideas you end up using. Or the funniest ideas. Or the most out-there ideas. Or based on sheer volume. Or all of the above! Use Starbucks cards or get creative—even badges seem to motivate people.

Ideas to encourage innovation in yourself:

  • Walk. Research shows that creative thinking and problem solving is vastly improved while walking, and for some time after. It is real, and it makes a huge difference for some people.
  • Spend time with people who inspire you. Or read about them. Or watch movies about them.
  • Learn something new that is completely unrelated to your job—a new body of knowledge or skill. Have you always wanted to learn to play the banjo? All about dinosaurs? Baking bread? Bird watching? Take an improvisation class? It may feel counterintuitive, but it will force your brain to create new neural pathways and increase the chance of an aha moment.
  • Sign up for an advanced class on supply chain. Get more comfortable with being a little uncomfortable and out of your depth.
  • Find an undisputed supply chain master and ask that person to mentor you.
  • Keep a log of your ideas; perhaps in a notebook by your bed. (Don’t look at your phone in the middle of the night—it is the thief of sleep.)
  • Question everything you have already done, everything you take for granted, and anything you spend time on that isn’t mission critical.
  • Expand your horizons. Take a trip (if feasible) somewhere you have never been. Get out into nature. Take a walk on the beach or by a lake or river. Look out at an actual horizon. Go to a museum, or your local aquarium, or an art installation. Do something you wouldn’t ordinarily do. (This idea, called an Artist’s Date, comes from Julia Cameron’s book and program The Artist’s Way, which I highly recommend for anyone who feels like they have lost their creative spark.)
  • Eliminate time-filling habits—mainly: get off your phone! Stop checking the news, scrolling social media, playing addictive games. And delete TicToc, right this minute.
  • Change up your work environment. Rearrange your furniture, get rid of ancient files that are taking up space and collecting dust, take all the old crud off your bulletin board, repaint a wall in a beautiful color, get a stand-up desk, get a little Zen garden and make designs with the mini rake, get a small fountain.
  • Listen to music if you haven’t been, or different music if you have been.

The watchword to engineer a shift toward innovation is curiosity, which can be defined as a strong drive to know or learn something. So get curious. Even if you get absolutely nothing from your boss, making the decision to be more innovative will almost certainly make your work more fun and your life more interesting. Ultimately, it will only add value. And who knows what it could do for your career? Probably good things. You say supply management isn’t known as an area where people are super creative, but you may change your mind about that!

Love, Madeleine

About the Author

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response here next week!

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