5 Steps to Becoming an Innovative Leader

Become an innovative leader to influence your team and organization’s growth for the future.

Innovative leadership is a necessary leadership skill in today’s fast-growing market. Your organization can not afford to languish in the mindset of doing business the way you have always done it. Take these five simple, yet sometimes difficult, steps to becoming an innovative leader that inspires your team to take risks, experiment, and grow.

1. Forget About Best Practices

innovative leader_best practices“Best practices are for amateurs.”
~ Sara Critchfield, founding Editor of Upworthy.com

Sara Critchfield argues that best practices thinking restricts creativity and innovative thinking. Instead, managers should encourage employees to take risks and experiment to develop divergent thinking.

After all, what are best practices but things that others have done that worked out well at the time? Best practices are merely the excuse for “the way we have always done things” thinking. You and your team should be continually questioning and defying best practices through experimentation. Very few things work the same way today as they did 20, 10, even 3 years ago. Make sure that your organization is not falling into the complacency trap by using best practices as a crutch for critical thinking and creative problem-solving.

You may be wondering how you can accomplish this without wasting resources on “reinventing the wheel”. Certainly, when someone on your team discovers a new way of doing things that can have a broader impact on how others work, this information needs to be shared and implemented. However, nothing should be granted tenure in your operations. New ideas and processes are best bred in an environment where they are cultivated by open-mindedness and experimentation.

Experimentation means that there will be failures. You may lose money on experiments, but that is often a necessary part of growth. You and your team need to make the best decisions you can about how a new idea might—and might not—work. But keep open to the fact that failure is a part of innovation, and that you learn from failure as well as you learn from success.

2. Accelerate Decision Making

innovative leader_accelerate decision makingDecision making is a critical skill of the innovative leader. Leaders make decisions every day, from the important to the mundane. However, innovative leaders make decisions differently than most. They are able to make quick decisions without having all of the information because they have confidence and trust in their team. They may not completely understand the full story of the decision, and sometimes they don’t fully agree with the course of action being presented, but they are able to make decisions that rely on the experiences and expertise of their team.

Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, recently discussed his approach to innovative decision making in his annual shareholder letter as “high-quality, high-velocity decisions.” This means that innovative leaders must be able to make good decisions quickly in order to stay alive in today’s market.

One of the concepts Bezos discusses in this section is the “disagree and commit.” It means that, rather than try to get 100% consensus on all decisions, team members need to be able to communicate their disagreement with a specific decision, but then commit themselves to the decision fully. This is a critical concept for team members as well as innovative leaders to make decisions that will quickly move initiatives and the organization forward. This, Bezos explains, is a much better decision-making process for innovative teams than the “you’ve worn me down” approach.

3. Get Out Of The Way

Along the same lines of “disagree and commit”, innovative leaders know when to make themselves part of an initiative or problem and they know when to get out of the way and let their team take it on.

As the boss, you may be one of the three main barriers that restrict innovation in the average workplace. Take an introspective look at how you manage new ideas and innovations on your team. Are you more likely to say “no” to new ideas? Do you tend to take over projects to make sure they are done the way you want them to be done? Are you more focused on processes than outcomes? If so, you need to take the often difficult step of getting out of the way in order to become an innovative leader.

If you and your management team have done the work in hiring the right talent and developing your team, you need to recognize when it is time to let your team take over and work out problems and projects on their own. This is a very difficult thing for many leaders to do, but it is a gift to your team. It provides them the opportunity to take on new responsibilities, learn new ideas, and develop new skills that will only make them better contributors in the long run.

Will there be mistakes? Yes, there will. Do mistakes happen when you are in charge of everything? Yes, they very likely do. If you truly want to become an innovative leader, you need to make a habit of committing to step out of the way and put your trust in your team’s ability to succeed.

This does not mean that you can’t oversee the outcomes of what they are working on. You need to make sure that either yourself or your team is putting accountability mechanisms in place. Plan on periodic or milestone updates on the initiative and agree up-front on what will be tracked and what success looks like for the project or the team.

4. Become Failure Tolerant

innovative leader_failure tolerantIt’s been mentioned a couple times in this blog already, and we all know it to be true. To become an innovative leader, you must work on becoming more failure tolerant. This is different than accepting failure as a norm.

Innovation is difficult to measure and quantify, particularly in the short-term. And success is never guaranteed. If you have an individual or a team who is genuinely working hard on an innovative project that just ends up falling flat you have to be able to let them get over that failure, coach them through learning from it and remove the fear of future failure. Successfully innovative teams will take the lessons they’ve learned from their failure and turn them into strengths for the next iteration of the project or to a new project. If you create an environment in which they are afraid to fail, teams will simply stop taking the risks necessary to move your organization forward.

Accepting failure is a different story and an innovative leader must learn to walk a sometimes fine line. Employees or team that fail due to lack of planning, commitment, collaboration, or laziness can not become an acceptable norm in your organization. This type of culture has the opposite effect on becoming an innovative organization and must be avoided at all costs.

5. Reward & Recognize

innovative leader_rewardWhat gets rewarded gets repeated. If you want to develop an innovative team that is able to think outside the box and take risks to develop new products, processes, technologies, etc. you must be able to recognize and reward the work they put into making those innovations come to life.

Of course, when an innovation ends up working out well for your team and/or organization, specific, timely, and genuine recognition is warranted. Public recognition is often the best approach because the person or team being recognized feels the impact of the appreciation more fully while, at the same time, others on your team begin to recognize the importance of what that person or team did. They begin to think that they want to be part of that recognition as well and will be more apt to start thinking innovatively and bringing new ideas to you or their supervisor.

Some innovative leaders have been known to even reward failures, when appropriate. Companies including P&G, TATA, Supercell, and Google all have failure rewards in place to encourage their people to think outside the box and try more innovative ideas without fearing for their reputation or careers.

Becoming an innovative leader is a journey that will take some time to complete. Many leaders have formed certain habits of control that helps them keep track of the performance of the organization, but may ultimately be stunting their growth. Taking these five steps to innovative leadership will help you re-form those habits and find new ones that inspire innovation.

April is Inspiring Innovation and Creating Consensus Month at Crestcom.
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