Your Inner Circle Might Be Killing Innovation. Here’s How To Know.23 March, 2018 / Articles
Twenty years ago, John Maxwell wrote his bestseller “The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership.” The classic is filled with great advice and many of his concepts have made their way into management lexicon and practice. The “Law of the Inner Circle” has become particularly ubiquitous. The law explains how a leader’s potential is determined by the strength of the people closest to him and it provides protocols for building a leadership team.
In my work advising leaders, they often refer to their inner circle. In some cases, inner circles are friends a founder hired to help manage their start-up. In others, it’s made of department chiefs whose opinions the leader values. In all instances, the leader perceives having an inner circle as a good thing.
In conversations with professionals outside of inner circles, I’ve heard a different perspective. To them, inner circles can represent a hurdle that impacts the flow and strength of ideas. From the outside looking in, three problems are routinely witnessed, all of which hurt innovation.
Leaders frequently huddle with their circle of confidantes, solving problems and making strategic decisions. While their trust and history allows them to work well together, sharing their thought processes beyond the circle is an after-thought. Since innovation and implementation are the twin sisters of success, it’s critical that those executing are bought in. But when inner circles do all the thinking, ideas arrive shovel-ready without the explanation or context necessary for strong buy-in.
In his book Wisdom of the Crowds, James Surowiecki notes that small groups focus on what they all know while discounting outside information as unreliable. Inner circles are susceptible to the same behavior. Some leaders intentionally use this layer of hierarchy to help with prioritization of employees’ ideas. In reality, by the time insight from the trenches reaches the leader, it’s likely to be discarded.
While it is tempting to believe a smart group won’t need outside ideas, a third issue gets in the way — inner circles often lack diversity and tend to think like their leader. Professor James G. March has noted that homogeneous groups become progressively less able to come up with different alternatives. Not only are new ideas not entering the circle, the ideas already in the circle are redundant.
How to Assess Your Inner Circle
Your inner circle may be functioning just fine. But if flow and quality of information is a challenge, by definition, you could be the last to know. Get ahead of this by taking several steps to determine whether your inner circle is blocking great ideas from taking root.
Keep your ears open for the voices outside the circle. When you communicate an idea, you should rarely hear “Why are we doing that? When did we decide that?” If you do, your inner circle isn’t functioning as it should. Their job is to identify team members who can help make decisions. Those same people then help with buy-in and implementation. Without either, even the best ideas will fail.
Listen for another voice with a similar refrain, but this is the one in your head. If you’ve ever thought, “Why didn’t I know that sooner?” then your inner circle is filtering too much information or not sharing hard truths. It is their responsibility to balance keeping you fully informed and extracting what isn’t relevant. Their default is to be brutally honest. If they don’t do this well, you and your ideas will be out of touch.
Finally, take an honest look at your circle. Ethnic and gender diversity is the first glance. Don’t lose sight of that. Now gaze deeper. Is everyone from Ivy League schools? Is there socioeconomic diversity? Did anyone work their way through college? Is there diversity of work style? Are they all extroverts? Are they all analytical? Does anyone come from outside your industry?
If your inner circle talks like you, thinks like you and has the same life experience as you, then they aren’t a circle around you. They are just another version of you. You aren’t ideating with colleagues, you’re just agreeing with yourself.
How to Restructure Your Inner Circle
Inner circles hold great value as a support system, strategic sounding board and mechanism for delegation. But if innovation is a priority, then you may need to redesign your inner circle and install some doors and windows.
The analogy is simple. Think of your inner circle as a house with you in the center. Think of ideas as the oxygen necessary for innovation to bloom. If the house has no doors and windows, the same air keeps circulating. If nothing fresh flows in, innovation will wither.
What you need is ventilation, not circulation. Rebuild your inner circle with leaders who can serve as doors and windows. The ability to excel in that capacity will be a function of their personality, path, or position:
- Personality: Is someone’s personality such that they’ve built relationships with people at all levels? This is the leader who says good morning to everyone and knows the names of people’s children. Despite their elevated authority, team members view them as open to ideas and input.
- Path: Did someone rise through the ranks in your organization and they haven’t forgotten what it was like not to be a leader? Because of their experience and perspective, this type of leader is not only open to, but invites ideas from farther down the hierarchy.
- Position: Is someone’s role structured so they interact with people at different levels of the organization? Some roles require movement up and down the chain of command. This gives them the ability to gather insight and ideas along the way.
A lot has changed in the two decades since Maxwell first published is book. In that time, innovation has taken center stage as a defining leadership trait. What hasn’t changed is the intentionality needed to build a leadership team. That deliberate practice is a hallmark of the Law of the Inner Circle and it’s worth returning to.
If you suspect your inner circle is impeding innovation, don’t hesitate to take the necessary steps. Identify people who will facilitate the free flow of ideas. Thoughtfully expand or redesign your inner circle. As you go through this process, keep in mind there is nothing stopping you from stepping outside as well. The fresh air is sure to do you some good.