Freeing up the blue-sky thinkers

by | Mar 16, 2012 | News

Simon Hayward from Cirrus writes for People Management

Steve Hilton, one of David Cameron’s closest advisors, has decided to take a year’s sabbatical just over a year and a half into his time at No 10. The departure of Hilton, a renowned blue-sky thinker, was quite a surprise. Surely most advisers would relish the opportunity to spend a full five-year parliamentary term at the heart of government, helping to shape policies that can change the nation?

Hilton, who currently holds an influential leadership position as the prime minister’s director of strategy, does have compelling family reasons for taking a year’s sabbatical. However, many political insiders have speculated that there are other motives behind his departure and question whether he will ever return. He is an unconventional thinker who enjoys challenging others, and is reported to have a short fuse. He has always encouraged Cameron to be bolder and is credited with helping to shape significant ideas such as the Big Society. Apparently he has found that implementing his ideas within the rigid structure of government a frustrating process. Friends say he has found the bureaucracy of the Civil Service stifling, and the compromises of the coalition infuriating.

We’ve all worked with independent free thinkers. Some of you may even see yourselves as mavericks. Very few organisations (governments included) enjoy sustained success by always playing it safe. Sometimes a bit of radical thinking is just what we need to encourage the sort of bold decisions that can create real change and breakthrough innovation.

Sometimes, maverick thinkers are reluctant to change their style of leadership and communication to accommodate others. Some achieve ‘guru’ status and have a charismatic leadership style, which engages others through inspiration and influence. Others do not achieve the level of influence they think their ideas deserve, which may cause them to walk away from organisations, particularly if they consider the organisation to be stifling them.

So, how can HR help?

There is one thing that most unconventional thinkers appreciate, and that is freedom. HR leaders can boost innovation by building more open and supportive cultures, where individual thought is not restricted by organisational bureaucracy. To do this, they need board-level influence and considerable organisational credibility.

Something else we can do is to support free thinkers with coaching to encourage them to communicate more effectively and to adopt a more collaborative style of working – a style that engages others through partnership and dialogue rather than by simply telling everyone about their great ideas.

For many organisations, the path of caution is tempting. It can be particularly tempting when times are tough. It’s reassuring to stick to the same old ways of operating. If a new idea does not seem immediately relevant or useful, it’s all too easy to stifle it. However, sometimes a seemingly crazy idea can lead to a major innovation or a new opportunity. So, hard as it can be at times, we really need to encourage unconventional thinkers, and give them freedom. This freedom comes with responsibility, of course, to work with others, to show patience and to communicate in ways others can understand.

Maybe Steve Hilton will be more likely to return after his sabbatical if No 10 can offer him a bit more freedom and opportunity. And maybe No 10 will welcome him back even more if he can combine his charisma with a little more collaboration.

Please click here to read this article and readers’ comments on the People Management website.

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