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Shaping Innovative Space

Updated: Jan 7, 2022

Despite every HR professional’s attempts at making the workplace amenable to all employees, such that they perform at a high level, people will naturally gravitate toward those they have something in common with. For example, similar thinking, aspirations, education, family composition, and shared experiences are all points of commonality that draw people together into cohesive groups.

Cliques, as they were called in high school, were more divisive than helpful but in business they are where information is shared more quickly and trust is exchanged at higher levels. In these groups there may one or more leaders that stand out as the person(s) that everyone looks to for a way forward when things get scattered, like when an organization needs to come up with new solutions to customers problems. Yet, within the cohesive group, although there is trust and free flowing information, that is not enough to crack the hard problems. The leaders of these groups are in the best position to be brokers between groups because they are typically emotionally intelligent and savvy enough to traverse between groups without crossing any group etiquette boundaries.

In the business world, much like high school, there are groups that serve their purpose within the overall culture. More specifically, there are two primary groups in business contexts that co-exist in every organization.

Operational Group

There is the operational group which enables the standardized performance of an organization to be timely, complete and accurate. This group typically consists of members of the in-house accounting, financial planning & analysis (FP&A) and administrative operations teams. The people that comprise these teams are characteristically analytical, priority driven, and structured. For these groups, details and compliance rule the day, balanced financials and transactions within budgetary expectations are celebration worthy. While control and accountability drive these people, strokes of perfectionism and structure color their nature.

Entrepreneurial Group

Conversely, the entrepreneurial group ushers in the learning and knowledge transfer within an organization. This group’s members are embedded in the sales and marketing teams, really enjoy their roles in business development and could possibly be hiding as customer service representatives. These people creative and idealistic. Metaphorically speaking, the thrill of the hunt gets these people going because its an adventure that requires being creative, thinking on your feet and adjusting to varying conditions. Flexibility and resourcefulness shape the actions of these people but they are also self-motivated and overwhelmingly optimistic.


Central to the promoting innovation and cultivating an innovative culture is the leader mobilizing the entrepreneurial and operational groups


Leaders Challenge

The challenge for business leaders is not to reduce the conflict between these two groups but to encourage it. I’m not saying that the leader should be like “Mean Gene” Okerlund stepping in between a free-for-all between two behemoths…

No not at all, but the leader should encourage positive conflict in that way that competition brings out the best in competitors. Leaders understand that these groups want the same thing but go about it in different ways and ensures that the groups don’t play dirty or loose sight of the overall objective, which is to gain a competitive advantage in their market and create value for the organization and their customers.


Shape the Adaptive Space

One of the keys to encouraging the friction between the groups is creating a space for these groups to communicate. Not just communicate aimlessly but communicate with an underlying focus. This way the true essence of the groups is not filtered and the out of bounds lines are clear. In the Complex Leadership Theory, this is referred to the Adaptive space, where the collaboration between the groups is dynamically bridged through the brokers within the groups. This space enables the entrepreneurial groups to be creative and fervently optimistic about the most outlandish ideas. Equally important, the adaptive space prevents the operational group, who traditionally squashes outside the box ideas that run contrary to budget expectations and financial analytics, and ultimately snuffing out the creative spirit that’s so necessary to be innovative and agile in today’s volatile markets.

Translate the language

Another key to encouraging the positive tension between the residing groups in an organization is leveraging the emotional intelligence to empathetically translate what each group is saying to each other. The leader is the ultimate broker and has to use the heart as well as the head. In most organizations the operational group is the loudest voice in the meeting because its legitimate and its how we’re taught in business school. We’re taught to focus on the P&L and how we can impact gross revenue while minimizing costs. Conversely, we have no clue how to function outside the traditional rules of business … (sell more at lower costs) and derive growth from the people who are closest to our clients and the clients themselves. Innovation is the key to growth and sustainability and an innovative culture is enables it. (SEE INNOVATIVE CULTURE BLOG POST). Central to promoting innovation and cultivating an innovative culture is the leader mobilizing the entrepreneurial and operational groups toward innovation while enforcing the rules of engagement and boundaries of the adaptive space. I know, easier said than done right? The leader embodies both groups and while playing referee early on, will transition to promoter of the adaptive space and mentor to the brokers of each group to ensure they are carrying on these values well after the original leader’s launch.

***Just imagine if every business would function this way and the level of job satisfaction members of the individual groups would have***

Now a leader uncomfortable or unfamiliar with this approach must level up and lift their leadership lid. Acknowledging deficiencies and growing in those areas is not only valuable to the organization but also reflects on the type of culture that leader wants with the organization. As I discuss the importance of leaders in organizational growth, I’m reminded of a mentor’s quote that --we don’t “go” to a new level but we “grow” to a new level. For if the leader’s character can’t sustain a new position of authority or productivity, the leader will be forced to adjust or taken out by force.



was founded on the notion that business is relational and growth is achieved through the deepening of all the micro connections between people, process, & tools for superior performance. We strive to help businesses enhance these connections and leverage them for transformation.


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If you work with a team and you’d like to find out more about how Leadership Training can help you, then you should sign up for our free 45-minute Lunch & Learn Session. Bring your energy and your questions, and I’ll bring my knowledge and a presentation on innovation leadership principles that can help you and your team raise your Leadership Lid.


Arena, M. J., & Uhl-Bien, M. (2016). Complexity leadership theory: Shifting from human capital to social capital. People & Strategy, 39(2), 22-27. Retrieved from: Articles

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