Leading Innovation with Soft Skills and Motivation
Creativity, the capacity to think differently, and soft skills to complement technical abilities. These are the essential ingredients of innovation—a dish best seasoned with a healthy dose of motivation.
Work has changed. Things that we now take for granted and consider essential in our daily lives—media such as Facebook and Twitter, for example—didn’t even exist until about a decade ago. YouTube, now 11 years old, is an example of a fantastic business: users—ordinary people—are the ones who develop the content, but who profits? The company!
All these communication channels have required innovation at every moment throughout their existence. To innovate, first you need a good idea; then you create it; finally, you test and validate the idea. The problem with innovation is that people think of it as something that happens far away, in Silicon Valley. In reality, innovation is largely based on your own attitude and creativity.
In disruptive innovation—a term coined by Clayton Christensen—the key is to find new attributes for a different market. One example is the introduction of shampoo designed for lower-income people in India, who tended to wash their hair with soap instead. The single-use shampoo sachet took India by storm. This idea was neither high-tech nor investment-heavy; all it took was a new way of thinking. With this move, shampoo manufacturers gained millions of new customers without having to invest in technology or change their product. All they had to do was introduce a new sales format for people who thought they couldn’t afford shampoo. To change a market, you need creativity and the courage to be different.
Cheap smartphones are another disruptive innovation. This product puts smartphone technology within the reach of people in developing countries who, until recently, thought they would never be able to afford it.
In the aerospace industry, the biggest challenges have to do with regulation. For example, drones will surely change our lives, but the conditions and regulations that affect drone flight vary from one country to the next. Regulation is a challenge that these companies must overcome, and the soft skills of persuasion are needed in order to reassure government authorities.
Companies are used to competing for the same customers, but if one company manages to create a new market, it can be the leader without having any competition. To do this, the company must differentiate itself and stay relevant to the market niche in order to remain successful.
Hard skills are the foundation, but soft skills are the essence, the difference between success and failure—of technology as well as leadership. And what’s interesting about soft skills is that they don’t really cost any money.
Soft skills for leadership
Putting a man on the moon required intelligence, courage, bravery, resources, adaptability, understanding, leadership, many years of research, funding, training, vision, ambition, and a deadline—in this case, the space race between the Americans and the Soviets. In other words, a large part of the achievement had nothing to do with the hard skills of technique and technology.
Education has traditionally focused on technical skills, but soft skills are essential if you want to compete and do something truly special. We need to change the way we think about education because a leader needs more than just technical qualities: soft skills are also a must. According to the Carnegie Institute of Technology, “85% of your financial success is due to your personality and ability to communicate, negotiate and lead. Shockingly, only 15% is due to technical knowledge.” Soft skills are what give you an advantage.
Hard skills are the foundation, but soft skills are the essence, the difference between success and failure—of technology as well as leadership. And what’s interesting about soft skills is that they don’t really cost any money. Some companies even expect their employees to have an entrepreneurial attitude. This is something we’ll need to remember in the future, when most technical activity is done by robots, because soft skills will allow us to be more creative.
An innovative leader must create an environment where everyone can flourish and give the best of themselves.
Innovation starts with motivation
The key to success lies in how you communicate and how you motivate your teams. To innovate, you need both responsibility and opportunity. You have to start small and work your way up. If I ask you to jump over a wall, you’ll say you can’t do it. But if I ask you to take a single step, it seems more doable. Of all the changes involved in a process or project, it’s the small ones that have a multiplier effect. Moreover, big changes are very risky and might not work—and if they don’t, the effect is very harmful. The way forward is to introduce small changes, generate understanding and trust, and build on it.
Gandhi once said: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” This means you have the opportunity when you have the responsibility. You have more power than you think, but when you make a decision there are many options to consider. Leadership has changed greatly. An innovative leader must create an environment where everyone can flourish and give the best of themselves. Hence the importance of internal—not external—motivation, which consists mainly of people noticing and sensing that they are making progress, doing meaningful things, feeling valued, acting autonomously, and seeing themselves as stakeholders in the project.
Balvinder Singh Powar, Professor at IE Business School, Board Member at Booster Space Industries, and CCO at Aerdron.
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