How do I become an innovative leader?

becoming an innovation leader

As organizations seek to thrive in the future, innovative leaders are essential to success. Regardless of industry, organizational structure, geography, etc., innovation is vital. The topic of innovation is closely related to creativity and shifting patterns of thinking. Leaders benefit from realizing that innovation is not a linear process, may involve paradigm shifts, and is heavily impacted by an organization’s culture. As leaders seek to transform their organizations, it is paramount to understand specific actions to utilize. Four actions include:

  1. Strive to Flourish Through Learning
  2. Encourage Others Toward Innovation
  3. Think with Distinction
  4. Devote Time to Individual Restoration. 

Themes of flourishing, encouraging, thinking, and restoring are paramount in this research.

Long-Form article of how to innovate

What does it mean to lead innovation?

Senior-level managers in organizations are often tasked from above with the vague, unclear, and ambiguous need to innovate. What does that task even mean? How does a manager lead innovation? 

Consider a Constellation

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (2012), Kuhn offers an analogy of development to that of a constellation. Though Kuhn highlights scientific development in his original analogy, the principles are relevant to development of any type. Consider his findings:

  • Discoveries are not linear or cumulative
  • Discoveries offer incomplete and imperfect insights based on to-date knowledge
  • Paradigms will continue to shift in the future as discoveries are exposed.

Kuhn’s perspective notes the importance of innovation across time and culture as insights together form constellations of development. 

Photo by Andy Holmes on Unsplash

New Paradigms

Kawasaki shares in this thought as he suggests innovation and revolution within an organization rely heavily on new paradigms and new rules, as mentioned in Rules for Revolutionaries (1999). Along with the critical nature of developing innovative solutions, how a leader innovates is essential too. Davila, Epstein & Shelton note in Making Innovation Work(2013) that leadership, strategies, goals, incentives, and culture must all be aligned to support powerful innovation within organizations. 

Actions to Innovate

Depending on the specific industry, product or service offering, organizational context, and business model, innovation looks vastly different. Four powerful innovation actions relevant to any leader are:

  1. Strive to Flourish Through Learning
  2. Encourage Others Toward Innovation
  3. Think with Distinction
  4. Devote Time to Individual Restoration

Action 1: Strive to Flourish Through Learning

In 1999, Seligman formed a new network of psychologists interested in studying and exploring the positive aspects and strengths of humanity. Seligman’s approach was a notable shift from the field of psychology at that time, as noted in The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology (2009). The focus of the positive psychology findings demonstrates the essential aspects of human flourishing:

  • Individual development
  • Wellbeing
  • Quality of life
  • Opportunity
  • Positive emotion 

In Flourish (2011), Seligman, sites core features of flourishing to include positive emotions, engagement, interest, meaning, and purpose. As individuals develop and their careers develop, so too does the organization develop. Gilley, Eggland & Gilley share this insight in Principles of Human Resource Development. Additionally, they note the importance of the value the organization places on its human capital. 

By valuing the human capital and making investments in the organization toward the act of learning, a learning climate, and an overall culture specifically designed for learning, leaders are equipping their organizations to flourish.

Culture is at the heart of learning.

Culture is at the heart of learning. To create this culture, Honold in Developing Employees Who Love to Learn (2000) notes that leaders make a conscious effort to:

  • Promote self-directed learning
  • Provide opportunities to develop
  • Offer a systemic approach

Leadership & Learning

Consider the role of leadership within the concept of learning. There are two crucial terms in this discussion.

  • Organizational learning
  • Learning organization 

Easterby-Smith, Burgoyne & Araugo address the distinction between the terms in (the cleverly titled book) Organizational Learning and the Learning Organization (1999). The authors hold that organizational learning speaks to the social aspects associated within an organization:

  • the organization’s culture
  • the politics of the organization
  • a lens or perspective of learning 
  • observations of how learning occurs within the organization

In contrast, the authors offer that the term learning organization speaks to:

  • the organization’s learning tools, 
  • the actions associated with learning, 
  • the methodology of how the particular organization learns, 
  • the evaluation of the learning outcomes

Learning Creates Expanded Ways of Thinking

Learning is critical for those leading innovation because it opens minds and allows for new ways of thinking. Kawasaki highlights the importance of thinking differently when innovating. And, learning creates expanded ways of thinking.

In Creative Change (2017), Mueller outlines the importance of thinking outside the box. This out-of-box thinking requires individuals to ideate, refine, evaluate, recognize, and dream. Mueller suggests that out-of-box thinking focuses on:

  • the why
  • the potential
  • the future 

Brabandere & Iny claim the origin of that phrase was during the 1960–1970s in Thinking in New Boxes: A New Paradigm for Business Creativity (2013). Further, the pair holds that the human brain uses models and needs boxes when thinking.They offer the perspective:

It is not merely thinking outside the box but rather it is about creating additional, new, different boxes

Individuals are to embrace inductive thinking and learning to create additional boxes. Here’s the idea: With the additional boxes, individuals enhance their ability to innovate by having numerous perspectives or models to select from when innovating. 

Action 2: Encourage Others Toward Innovation

Leadership is not a solo sport. Northouse offers a contemporary definition in Leadership Theory and Practice(2013). From his perspective, one of the essential characterizations of leadership is that a group of individuals must be involved. For leadership to be present, both a leader(s) and followers are present. It is not enough for the leader to be innovative, but rather the leader has a responsibility to influence the team toward that spirit of innovation. 

Relationships — a fundamental unit of innovation

Davila, Epstein & Shelton highlight that relationships are at the heart of innovation. Relationships, or network, serve as the fundamental unit of innovation. Whether individuals draw from internal or external networks, the cultivated relationships serve to ignite thinking or share ideas. Bremer emphasizes the importance of a positive environment to build trusting relationships in Developing a Positive Culture Where People and Performance Thrive (2018).

Scaling Leadership Relationships

The organization’s human capital is influential in leading innovation. In Heartificial Intelligence (2016), Havens provides leaders with a few tips for encouraging others toward this capacity. He notes the importance of giving one’s team purpose and meaning to their work while also affording teams a sense of flow. To aid in this effort, leaders must realize the connection between culture & relationships with the organization’s stated strategy & design.

For example, incentive programs, management structure, succession planning, and employee policies all impact the culture. 

Anderson & Adams emphasize, in Scaling Leadership (2019), the critical nature of empowerment, humility, and vulnerability when creative leaders seek to scale their efforts. Relevant to the successful scaling of leadership includes leaders actively encouraging others to embrace creativity while also cultivating intentionally deep relationships. 

Csikszentmihalyi suggests that the system (including the environment, domain, or field) must be suited to accept and cultivate creative ideas in Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention(1996). Csikszentmihalyi’s suggestions demonstrate the influence the system and culture play in connection to innovation and creativity. As these scholars share, leaders must not overlook the critical nature of involving others in innovation.

Action 3: Think with Distinction

Kuhn shares that during times of revolution, humanity experiences a paradigm shift that causes individuals to notice and interact with the world differently. Shifting from one paradigm to another forces an individual to make a judgement, decision, and an alternative decision. Paradigm shifts call for a rejection of the previous paradigm and acceptance of a new understanding. However, Kuhn suggests that these shifts and perceived solutions are too incomplete and imperfect.

Though leaders are not always engaged in a paradigm-shifting innovation, their innovations may play a part in the larger constellation of insights for their particular industry, organization, geographical location, and point-in-time.

Think of the Future

When understanding paradigm shifts and innovation, thinking of the future plays a critical role. Leaders understand that the only certainty associated with the future is that the future is uncertain. There are different perspectives when working with uncertainty.

Think of an Onion

Burrus & Mann note the contrast between a crisis manager versus an opportunity manager in Flash Foresight: How to See the Invisible and Do the Impossible (2011). They suggest that leaders identify and engage their organization’s problems, thus embracing the situation at hand. Burrus & Mann offer the analogy to an onion, suggesting that leaders focus on one layer at a time to understand the current situation when seeking to create a future-focused strategy. They also call for approaches that leverage the principle of abundance and potential as opposed to scarcity and limitation.

Think of Affirmations

Asprey, in Game Changers: What Leaders, Innovators, and Mavericks Do to Win at Life (2018), presents another way to contemplate abundant versus scarce thinking. He promotes that an individual is, first, to remove self-limiting thoughts and then habitually create affirmations for oneself.

Think like an Innovator

In The Innovator’s Mindset (2015), Couros offers characteristics of innovative leaders to include 

  • Empathic
  • Learning-oriented
  • Team builder
  • Problem finder and solver
  • Risk taker
  • Networker
  • Observer
  • Creator
  • Relator
  • Reflector

Courous holds that these characteristics prove helpful in the distinctive thinking required of innovative leaders. Consider the thinking used in innovation such as the Kleenex, ZIP code, or the Oceans Gallery of Google Street View. 

  • The evolution of Kleenex, as Kawasaki recounts, originated during World War I as a gas-mask filter and evolved over the years to be a disposable handkerchief and now is synonymous to pop-up tissue boxes. 
  • Madhavan recounts in Applied Minds: How Engineers Think (2015) that the 1960s welcomed the arrival of the Zone Improvement Plan (ZIP) code following an increase in mail volume due to the marketing tactic of direct-mail along with a few other factors. 
  • Next, consider the distinctive thinking that had to occur first for Google maps to create street view available to internet users, and now the newly established Oceans Gallery of Google street view. 

These are just three examples of how thinking with distinction led to a new system, product, and service. Each case listed is an example of thinking that changed the rules and offered a revolutionary innovation.

Action 4: Devote Time to Individual Restoration

During innovative work, leaders must devote time to their individual restoration. In Asprey’s book, he pens a clever chapter title, Even Batman Has a Bat Cave. With this imagery, he is calling leaders to consider the importance of recovery and downtime. In a society filled with exhaustion and burnout, leaders serve their teams best when they practice rest regularly. Asprey emphasizes that leaders must actively schedule and carve out time for recovery. 

Mindfulness and gratitude practices are often associated with this type of restorative, individual work. Resilient: How to Grow an Unshakable Core of Calm, Strength, and Happiness(2018), written by Hanson, provides the imagery of one’s mind being a garden. 

  • Hanson suggests that actively practicing mindfulness allows for the weeds in one’s mind to get pulled while leaving room for flowers to grow. Mindfulness is essential to the life and work of a leader. 
  • A simple gratitude practice noted in Positivity (2009) by Fredrickson is to maintain a daily gratitude journal. By using a journal format, individuals must write down the elements of their lives that they are grateful for habitually. 

Kogon, Merril & Rinne share in The 5 Choices: The Path to Extraordinary Productivity (2015) that productivity is about accomplishing the correct things instead of merely completing more things. Devoting time to individual restoration through mindfulness and gratitude practices is essential to innovation.

There is always a place for innovation.

Regardless of geographic location, a moment in history, industry, organization type, or any other context classification, there is always a place for innovation. Innovation is as simple as generating new or different thoughts. The four actions outlined above provide guideposts for leaders seeking to enhance innovation within their contexts and transform their organizations. As leaders seek to innovate within their contexts, these four actions provide invaluable direction for their efforts.

Does your organization need innovation?

Schedule a complimentary quick start session with Dr. Sarah Skidmore, Innovation Practitioner + Leadership Futurist. 

Skidmore Consulting is an Innovation + Leadership + Marketing firm that provides scalable solutions for leaders, teams, and organizations ready for more. 

© Skidmore Consulting 2020