Three Building Blocks of Innovation Leadership - Ideas for Leaders
Idea #589

Three Building Blocks of Innovation Leadership

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Fostering innovation in an organization requires the tools and techniques to help generate and implement ideas, the knowledge and abilities to manage innovation processes, and the attitudes that encourage rather than undermine new thinking. The right toolset, skillset and mindset are the three building blocks of innovation.


To foster innovation, the first step is to recognize the difference between business thinking and innovative thinking. Business thinking is logical, builds on past precedents and pursues certainty. Innovation thinking is intuitive, revels in ambiguity, and favours slow reflection over quick decisions. Leaders in innovative companies are adept at both business thinking and innovative thinking.

Many leaders trying to foster innovation in their companies are tripped up by some familiar myths on how to support innovation. The first myth is that innovation can be managed and mandated. In truth, leaders enable innovation by providing the right context and culture for creativity, not by commanding creativity! At the same time, innovation is about creative ideas turned into action. This means that leaders cannot just let creative be creative. They must also provide the structure and execution skills to move innovation beyond the idea stage and into the marketplace.

In their paper, “Becoming a Leader Who Fosters Innovation,” David Magellan Horth and Jonathan Vehar of the Center for Creative Leadership lay out the three building blocks of innovation leadership.

The first of the building blocks is an innovation toolset. There are a variety of tools and techniques to help innovation leaders galvanize and enable the generation and implementation of creative ideas. For example, brainstorming and mind-mapping are two ways to free creative thinking from self-imposed constraints. Another example is simple prototyping, which is a technique for executing and testing ideas without massive investment.

The second building block for fostering innovation is the innovation skillset. Innovation leadership is required at all levels of the organization. Lower level project leaders manage their teams and the creative process, middle and functional managers ease collaboration between different groups and across organizational boundaries respectively, and top managers set an innovation strategy and institute a culture that encourages and enables innovation.

The third building block is the innovation mindset. Innovation tools and skills are powerless without an innovation mindset: the attitudes (and subsequent behaviours) that favour rather than undermine innovation. Curiosity, affirmative judgement (emphasizing the positive rather than the negative), and taking the time to be reflective (allowing leaders to view issues from different perspectives or to catch nuances not readily apparent) are three of the components of an innovation mindset.

Fostering innovation is more difficult than many leaders realize. They must reject the myths that lead to failure, and work diligently to help their organizations acquire and incorporate the toolset, skillset and mindset without which innovation will not survive.


The following are some specific actions to help organizations develop the toolset, skillset and mindset for innovation leadership:

  1. Create a mandate for change. At the senior level, this requires developing a strategy that embraces innovation. At lower levels, use your authority to champion change in your sphere of influence and, in collaboration with like-minded peers, approach those who can mandate change.
  2. Model what it will take for the organization to become more innovative. For example, if you talk about long-term innovation, but use day-to-day results metrics to guide decisions on compensation or resources, don’t expect your employees and managers to focus on innovation. You must prove that you support both business thinking and innovation thinking.
  3. Involve the entire organization in strategic issues. Communicating challenging strategic issues throughout the organization promotes collaboration and encourages the emergence of creative ideas from all levels.
  4. Create highly diverse teams to address strategic issues. Diversity in perspectives can lead to new and unexpected ideas. Take care, however, that they don’t become bogged down in differences that limit their effectiveness.
  5. Give people access to the innovation toolset. Make tools, methods and experiences readily available to all involved in generating and implementing new ideas.
  6. Design and build systems that nurture innovation. Remember that creative ideas might begin with freewheeling brainstorming sessions, for example, but they will require a structure for implementation. One example: having the capacity to prototype new solutions.
  7. Breakdown all barriers to new ideas, such as internal politics, destructive criticism or systemic hurdles. Even ideas that may not fit in your department might find a home in another part of the organization – as long as people are willing to listen.

Avoiding the know-it-all mindset of too many leaders, putting in place the right culture, systems and resources, and giving people the chance to collaborate and the freedom to make mistakes are keys to fostering the innovation organization. 



Innovation: How Leadership Makes the Difference. David Magellan Horth & Jonathan Vehar. CCL® White Paper (January 2015). 

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Idea conceived

January 16, 2016

Idea posted

Feb 2016
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