When building a culture of innovation, the most important variable is leadership. A great leader can create a culture of innovation, but a poor leader can kill it. Great innovation leaders know how to evaluate ideas, stay curious, and be humble. They are not born this way – they have learned these behaviors and work to improve them everyday.

According to Göran Ekvall, innovation dynamics researcher, a leader’s behaviors account for the difference between between a great and mediocre creativity climate. Whether you are the Board Chair, CEO, VP, manager or a parent, you and your behavior will greatly influence how creative your people are.

Learn how you can be a great innovation leader.  We’ll also share examples of how leaders at Google and Protégé Biomedical lead innovation.

Innovation Leaders Know How to Evaluate New Ideas

As a manager, you are often judged on how fast you can get your people to perform well. In your haste to deliver, it becomes easy to focus on reducing errors instead of encouraging people to share new ideas. Unfortunately, this can lead to a more conservative approach to innovation. Strong leaders need to encourage new ideas and to create an open climate.

When brought a new idea, innovative leaders know how to evaluate it. Rather than quickly judging and dismissing new ideas, they understand that every idea has some merit. This does not mean that every idea is good. It just means that you need to identify what is good about it. There are two reasons. First, once you see what is good about an idea, you can use it to improve that idea or combine it with another idea. Second, seeing what is good about an idea tells the idea owner that their idea has merit. This encourages the owner to make the idea better and to continue to seek new ideas.

An excellent tool for evaluating ideas is POINt. It’s a four-step process. To evaluate an idea you look for:

  1. Pluses what’s good about the idea?
  2. Opportunities what are the secondary benefits that might result if you use the idea?
  3. Issues what are the concerns or problems?
  4. New thinking how can you overcome the most critical issues?

innovative leaders are curious

Innovation Leaders are Curious

The best innovation leaders are curious. Their curiosity motivates them to acquire new information. As their brain takes in information, it relates with what is already present to create new connections. These new connections generate new ideas which lead to innovation.

Innovation leaders remain curious by asking questions. Here’s how you can too:

1) Rephrase problems into questions. For example, you might think that your organization cannot afford a machine that will boost productivity. Get curious, and ask “What might be all the ways to fund this investment?” Or, what might be a cheaper alternative to this investment. Read more about Question Starters.

2) When you hear someone say, “It can’t be” ask, “Why not?” Our colleague and genius researcher Andy Aleinikov likes to say, “’Why not every not.”

3) When you are in an airport, pick up a magazine that you wouldn’t normally read. You may find yourself learning about an unfamiliar topic that leads to new thinking.

How a Curious Protégé Biomedical’s Leader Drove Innovation

One of Protégé Biomedical’s founders, a graduate of our creative thinking course, was curiously paging through a magazine. He saw an ad for a blood-clotting bandage. Seeing that the clotting agent had some weaknesses, he wondered if he could develop something better. After some additional learning and simple low cost experiments, he developed a new clotting agent. The clotting agent is expected to outperform its competitors and will be worth millions. And it all started with curiosity.

Innovation Leaders are Humble

As people move up the organizational hierarchy, some become arrogant. Their arrogance can stifle curiosity, inhibit learning and kill creativity.

Innovation leaders resist this temptation. They remain humble. They can recognize a mistake and learn from it. Furthermore, they’re humble enough not to punish someone for making a mistake. They recognize that they could have made the mistake just as easily as the other person. For this reason, they do not punish; they may even reward well-intentioned failures. Creating an environment that supports risk-taking is critical to successful innovation.

Humility is not something you do, it’s a way that you are. Periodically, ask yourself how you are interacting with others. Make sure you’re not being a know-it-all who does things perfectly (or thinks everything you do is perfect).

How a Humble Google Co-Founder Fosters Innovation

Consider this example of humility from an interview that aired on Marketplace. When Sheryl Sanberg was vice president of Google’s automated advertising systems, she made a multi-million dollar mistake. Did she try to hide the mistake? Nope. Instead, she walked over to Google co-founder, Larry Page, and told him about it. So what’d he do? Fire her? Nope. He said, “Yeah, we shouldn’t have done that. We’ll know better next time. But, oh, by the way, it’s good that you made this mistake. I’m glad, because we need to be the kind of company that is willing to make mistakes. Because if we’re not making mistakes, then we’re not taking risks. And if we’re not taking risks, we won’t get to the next level.”

learn idea generation

How to Build an Organization of Innovation Leaders

We’ve identified how successful innovation leaders behave. When brought together, these three behaviors will lead to stronger self-command. This means that the leader controls their reactions, can let go of personal ego, and appreciates everyone’s efforts to contribute. This maturity in Emotional Intelligence will lead to a more productive, collaborative environment.

It is possible to spread this behavior throughout the organization. First, individuals must be trained in how to effectively generate new ideas, evaluate them, and strengthen the best solutions. Second, the company culture and policies have to support time for employees to experiment with new ideas, stay curious and be humble. Finally, for long-term success, every employee must be evaluated on these critical leadership skills.

To achieve a culture of innovation, encourage leaders to put opportunities for new learning on all meeting agendas, place learning challenges in performance objectives, and give freedom and flexibility for new creations to be worked on. Build the right training, opportunities and accountability processes, and you’ll create the leadership culture that sets you apart from your competition.

This article is one in a series that explores the 12 strategic areas organizations need consider when building a culture of innovation. Learn more about building an innovation culture.

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