What does it take to be an innovation leader?

Evette Cordy

As an innovation expert, registered psychologist and the chief investigator and co-founder at Agents of Spring, Evette uses curiosity and creativity to helps organisations to create human-centred products and services and facilitates new ways of thinking in organisations. She is the author of Cultivating Curiosity: How to unearth your most valuable problem to inspire growth.

To thrive in an increasingly complex and unpredictable new world, organisations will need to innovate, and leaders will require the necessary skills to do so. Here,  

Here are four skills that will turbo-charge your innovation efforts.  

Handling ambiguity

Imagine you are in a senior leadership meeting and someone asks how the latest innovation project is going. All heads turn to you, waiting for your response. You don't know yet – it is too early, your team hasn't even defined the right problem to solve – yet you feel compelled to respond. Are you comfortable to say: “I don’t know yet, but we are learning a lot”?  

Ambiguity is all around us. We don't know what we don’t know. Yet we like to know, because it helps us to feel more comfortable and in control.  In psychology, this is referred to as our need for closure. When our need for closure is high, we tend to revert to stereotypes, jump to conclusions and deny contradictions.  

Leaders’ need for certainty can kill innovation. It reduces a leader’s ability to let go of the known and make space for new, unknown insights and ideas. In your next innovation project sit with ambiguity and plan to ‘not know’ for a bit longer.  

A curious mindset

Leaders that curiously observe what customers say and do, to understand what deeply matters to them, will find the most valuable problems to solve. This helps them to create more meaningful solutions for customers.  

Leaders should spend less time in the office and more time walking in their customers’ shoes. Spend time discovering customers’ hopes, fears and values. Notice what delights them, and also observe their pain points. The more open leaders are to discover new insights, the richer the platform for problem finding, and ultimately innovation, will be.  

Creatively fit

Creativity is the most in-demand soft skill according to LinkedIn behavioural data. It is critical for breakthrough thinking and innovation, and scientific research has shown that anyone can cultivate it. The more often you can approach challenges flexibly and imaginatively, the easier it will become to generate original ideas.  

Research has suggested that more creative thinkers are also accomplished at seeing connections between things they already know and connecting the dots to generate more original ideas. By training your ability to see connections, you can boost your ability to think creatively.  

Being brave

Imagine you are in another leadership meeting and presenting the customer-led ideas that have been prioritised. Several in the room challenge these ideas: “We’ve tried that before, and it didn’t work”, completely disagreeing with what has been decided. Do you sit there and nod your head in agreement, or do you speak up and explain how these ideas are different and what you learnt from failing last time?  

Many of us play it safe. We agree with others because we do not want to stand out or we fear failure, and this is costly to innovation efforts. Leaders need to embrace risk-taking, challenge the status quo, and bravely speak up and dissent.  

These four leadership skills should be practiced and mastered alongside a robust innovation process to enhance your innovation efforts. Keep in mind; these are not one-off activities – to get skilled they require repeated effort and discipline.

Tags: Leadership strategies

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