7 Ways to be an Innovative Leader

Jake Wilder
Dec 20, 2020 · 10 min read

There’s no Secret. Just a Way of Operating.

“Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating,” John Cleese in a 1991 talk on the five factors of creativity. Echoing Chuck Close’s statement, “Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work,” creativity tends to be less the result of waiting for divine intervention and more about repeatedly showing up each day and persisting in the face of disappointment. And as change continues to be a law of life, with our one certainty being uncertainty, our ability to creatively adapt and innovate has never been more critical to our success.

This past year showed just how quickly something can upend even our most carefully laid plans. When this happens, people find themselves in one of two groups. One resists the change, sticks their head in the sand, and waits for things to return to normal. The other faces it head on and adapts.

Our organizations have this same choice. Resist change and double-down on the status quo. Or tap into our creative potential and develop a better future.

Most companies realize this. Yet they continue to struggle. They try to drive it from a top-down standpoint instead of encouraging everyone to become an innovative leader.

There’s something disturbing about telling employees to think differently because management told them to think differently.

In order to come through these challenges, we’ll need more leaders. We’ll need more people willing to set aside the status quo and focus on building a better future for tomorrow.

Although there’s no simple formula for driving innovation, there are a number of things leaders can do to help encourage the process. As John Cleese said, it’s not a talent, it’s a way of operating. First and foremost…

Organizations are bred for stability. Through rules and procedures, they institutionalize behaviors that promote the status quo, while discouraging anything that threatens it. Senior management can preach innovation all they want, but most cultures are built with an inherent conservatism that makes them very resistant to change.

Status quo managers love this. It makes their job easy. If they want to keep operations running smoothly, the easiest way is to normalize everything and preach compliance. It’s why companies create reams of rule books. It’s why companies institute multiple reviews — checkers to check the checkers — in order to prevent mistakes.

In my experience, I’ve found that people generally want to do good work. They want to tackle difficult problems and develop innovative solutions. Few are looking for a career where they can hide away and never make a real impact.

But when stability is celebrated, they’ll stop taking risks. They’ll offer predictable, derivative solutions. They’ll chose safe over impactful.

In a world of constant change, stability offers a path to obsolescence. This can’t be the goal. Which means…

Status quo managers love telling people to fail fast. They read some article on it somewhere and think it makes them sound innovative. And then they ask that people guarantee success before testing anything. Or worse, punish people for those fast failures.

Here’s the thing. No one actually wants to fail. Fast or slow, it’s not the choice outcome. Despite what management consultants and professional academics might tell you, people don’t wake up each morning hoping for a disappointing failure to happen.

Yet it’s an unavoidable part of the process. The alternative is to only run experiments that you know will succeed. And as Stuart Firestein wisely put it, “There’s no surer way to screw up an experiment than to be certain of its outcome.”

Innovation is two steps forward, one step back…if you’re lucky. It proceeds in fits and starts, successes and failures. All of which, hopefully, brings you closer to your goal.

Eric Ries recognized this logic in The Lean Startup, suggesting that instead of measuring a startup’s life through time, it’s more apt to measure it through future pivots. Viewed through this lens, it’s easier to see that if a startup wants to prolong its life, it can focus on achieving those pivot decisions faster and cheaper. By simplifying the build-measure-learn feedback loop, you can accelerate learning and drive pivot decisions with limited

Startups do this to preserve capital. But leaders need to do it for another reason: making it safe for people to take risks.

People will naturally be hesitant to take big risks. So don’t make them. Create opportunities for them to prove out their concepts in smaller tests. Let people experiment in safe-to-fail environments.

In Imagine it Forward, Beth Comstock offered two questions that now span the top of my office whiteboard:

  • What problem are we trying to solve?
  • And what’s the simplest, fastest way to test a solution?

By focusing on the simplest, fastest way to test a solution, it limits the overall risk. It turns a bad experiment into a minor disappointment as opposed to a catastrophic failure. And by focusing on simple experiments, it makes big problems much less overwhelming. Which is critical because…

Big problems require fortitude and perseverance. More importantly, at least for this discussion, they require imagination. As Einstein put it, “we cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.”

While big, difficult problems don’t always produce major breakthroughs, small, easy problems never do. If people can see an easy answer in front of them, why waste time digging for a more innovative solution?

Hard problems force people to confront past assumptions. It forces them to challenge convention and find a completely new way of approaching the problem. Similar to Peter Thiel’s question, “How can you achieve your ten year plan in the next six months?” it requires a completely new approach.

Most companies have no shortage of major problems that they’ve simply trained themselves to ignore. Look for areas where you’ve become complacent with trade-offs over time. Find areas that people have become comfortable with an “either/or” and challenge them to turn it into an “and.”

People tend to believe that you need a crisis to drive major change. But this isn’t a law of nature — it’s merely a vehicle to shock people out of today’s complacency. There’s no reason to wait for a crisis to strike. Challenge your team to take on these problems and start thinking differently. After all…

We know that good ideas can, and do, come from anywhere. But they rarely seem to come on their own. Posting a bunch of suggestion boxes around the office doesn’t encourage people to come forward with their thoughts.

Engaging the creative power of your team isn’t a one-time event. It’s an active, continual process.

Are you speaking with your team or at them? Are you actively asking them for their input? And do you show appreciation for each suggestion, regardless of whether you think it’s viable?

In order to encourage everyone to contribute, people need to feel as though they’re an active contributor to the company’s future. Leaders can’t afford to be subtle about this. Invite people to participate. Encourage them to voice their concerns. And let them know how much you depend on them.

The biggest predictor of whether someone will offer an idea is how you treated their last one. Remember that the worst idea is infinitely better than no idea. You can build off a bad idea. You can use it to reduce resistance for everyone else to come forward. You can’t do anything with silence.

Of course, the best response is to actually put their ideas into motion. And an energetic owner is worth encouraging because…

“The new idea either finds a champion or dies,” said Edward Schon of MIT. “No ordinary involvement with a new idea provides the energy required to cope with the indifference and resistance that major technological change provokes.” And if you consider past innovations that succeeded in the face of opposition, as well as those that folded under pressure, the difference often comes down to the presence of a champion.

Innovations, creativity, and change are difficult. There’s no shortage of people looking to protect the current way of doing business. The road is marked with failures, setbacks, and obstacles at every turn. Without a champion — someone who harbors an irrational commitment to the new idea — there isn’t the energy to persevere in the face of these difficulties.

When Texas Instruments conducted a survey of 50 years of successful and unsuccessful new-product introductions, they found that one factor marked every failure: they didn’t have a champion. They’d forced someone into the product role who lacked the emotional commitment to persevere through inevitable difficulties. TI then updated their product development process as follows:

“When we take a look at a product and decide whether to push it or not these days, we’ve got a new set of criteria. Number one is the presence of a zealous, volunteer champion. After that comes market potential and project economics in a distant second and third.”

Theodore Levitt of Harvard once wrote, “Creativity is thinking up new things. Innovation is doing new things.” This difference, the ability to take an idea and turn it into reality, is often predicated on having a champion.

Champions aren’t critical because they’re the only ones who do great work. They’re critical because they bring out the best work from everyone around them. They create commitment and perseverance to the idea. And they foster an environment where the team believes they’ll be successful against any odds. Finding and encouraging these champions is one of a leader’s most important responsibilities since…

If you’re doing something new, not everyone will agree with it. It’s an inherent aspect of innovation. Some people will tell you that you’re going too fast. Others will tell you that you’re going too slow. And a good percentage of the population will offer all sorts of objections as to why you shouldn’t be wasting your time at all.

I’d say that this skepticism is an unfortunate part of life and work, but it’s not unfortunate at all. Each piece of criticism brings an opportunity to understand a source of resistance. Each piece of feedback gives you the chance to strengthen the product.

Do they have a solid technical concern with your idea? If so, better to resolve that now. Are they objecting from a lack of understanding, preconceived bias, past experience, or competing ideas? Any and all of these can be overcome through consideration and dialogue.

By tackling this skepticism head on, you can sharpen your views and move up critical experiments to test their concerns. And by showing people that you take their concerns seriously, you can start turning skeptics into advocates. As people see their feedback incorporated into the product, they begin to take some ownership for seeing it succeed.

Pixar employs this process through their Braintrust meetings. The director shares the film’s storyline, characters, and initial graphics to a small group of other directors. The group then points out concerns or suggestions from the benefit of their experience and an objective view.

But most importantly, the Braintrust doesn’t have the authority to mandate solutions. The directors don’t have to follow any of the suggestions and it’s completely up to them how they want to use this feedback to improve their film. As Ed Catmull described, “We don’t want the Braintrust to solve a director’s problem because we believe that, in all likelihood, our solution won’t be as good as the one the director and his or her team comes up with.”

The ability to build a coalition of people you trust, yet are candid in assessing your ideas, is critical to any innovation because…

Innovations rarely come from one genius or a random epiphany. Steve Jobs didn’t create the iPhone. And Thomas Edison didn’t invent the lightbulb. There were teams of people that took these ideas from that initial spark to final product.

Innovation requires networks of people, working in concert, much more than it needs a sole genius working in a sequestered room. But for this to happen, leaders need to make sure that these networks are all working towards a common mission.

A common reason that innovations stall is that different departments find themselves working towards completely different goals. There’s little incentive for one team to work with another if it conflicts with their own team’s agenda.

Let’s be clear, different areas of the business should have different goals. Watering them down enough to make them universal would defeat the whole purpose. But they need to be coordinated toward a central mission. They need to encourage people to contribute across these imaginary lines for the benefit of the overall company.

If one area needs to lose so that a different team can win, it’s nearly impossible to build the collaboration necessary for innovation. It’s on the leader to seek out these areas of misalignment and address them at the onset of any innovation.

The question of how to lead our teams through creativity has rarely been more pressing. And while there’s no sausage crank that guarantees innovation, there are a number of things that leaders can do to help drive this process.

1. Stability is not the goal.

2. Leaders aren’t there to prevent risks. They’re there to make it safe for people to take them.

3. The best way to make people think differently is by giving them a hard problem to solve.

4. It’s not enough to simply be open to new ideas. A leader needs to actively encourage these ideas out of others.

5. Innovations succeed or die based on the presence of a champion.

6. Skepticism is an unavoidable part of both work and life. It’s your job to find and understand the reason behind those disagreements.

7. No new idea is perfect at first. Great innovations develop through diverse collaboration and aligned teams.

And if there’s an eighth, I think it would be that there’s no substitute for getting started. Get started today. Good luck.

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Jake Wilder

Written by

Enemy of the Status Quo.

Curious

Curious

A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

Jake Wilder

Written by

Enemy of the Status Quo.

Curious

Curious

A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

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