How leaders make or break innovation

Hey there, leader

I know you’re really busy but… we need to talk about innovation.

Now I know you are all too aware that you need to constantly innovate to stay ahead of the competition. And I can see that you’re trying to do all of the right things in giving your teams some of the tools and skills they need to make this happen.

And in fact we’ve helped you by providing training, coaching, running sprints, facilitator master classes and providing you with toolkits: indeed everything you need to be effective.

Your teams came back from those courses and innovation sprints, wide eyed with enthusiasm for design thinking and full to bursting with ideas that they wanted to take forward. And then…..

Nothing happened …I know. It’s as disappointing for us as it is for you. But it wasn’t the fault of your teams. They came back changed. But, the organization stayed the same. And do you know what?…I get it. As a leader, you never have enough hours in the day. And the pressure never goes away.

You need to make this quarter’s numbers in order to keep the board and investors happy. That way you get to carry on for another quarter and hopefully get everyone’s bonus paid at the end of the year.

And that this means you need to make sure people are delivering whatever you need to make your numbers rather than daydreaming on the company’s time. It’s relentless and you’re so busy feeding the beast that you’ve not even had the time to consider if the beast is still even hungry.

But I need to make you aware of something

Every day you don’t make time for the ideas that will form your future, you hand those opportunities to your competitors; your old adversaries as well as competitors that don’t even exist yet.

Every time you give your employees new skills and then fail to change their KPI’s, priorities and plans in accordance, you basically disempower these employees and send them running into the arms of your competitors with their bright ideas in tow.

Every time you ask people for ideas and then don’t get round to properly reviewing them, you kill their creative spirit and allow cynicism to creep in. And when you really need their ideas, they won’t believe you mean it and they won’t contribute.

So, what can you do about it?

You’re not alone. We see this with teams across all industries in all geographies time and again. The reasons that teams struggle to translate their training and sprints in to real action are always the same. It all boils down to whether their leaders really know how to actively support them.

So, it’s time to make a few changes… To get you started here are a few really practical things that you, as a leader, can do to remove the obstacles and empower your teams to innovate!

What are you struggling with?

Delegating on innovation

Try this – Don’t just delegate it. Inspire and lead by example. Get yourself a solid understanding in the principles of human centered design. You don’t need to ‘do’ the actual designing but you do need to be able to recognise, model and reward the right behaviours.

Business as usual always takes priority. Never enough time or resource for teams to take their ideas forward.

Try this – Give your employees 3 hours a week for ‘curiosity’. To be used on learning, observing, ideating, building prototypes and tinkering with stuff. And block that time in your diary too. You can use it to get curious about what your team came up with.

Teams based is different locations with no travel budget

Try this – If you don’t have the budget to co-locate your teams then provide tools that allow teams to innovate remotely. Sprintbase is a fine application that helps teams to do exactly that. And it’s a fraction of the cost of a plane ticket. Yes, this sounds like a shameless plug but there’s nothing else out there like it and it will help create momentum.

Understanding the opportunities their ideas might create. It all seems a bit abstract

Try this – Stop asking for ideas. Ask for prototypes and the feedback that they got from sharing them, as well as the insights that sparked their thinking. When you ask for ideas you ask for something that’s too new with too many questions for you to be able to properly appraise it. When you ask for a prototype, especially one that’s already been shared with a few users, some of those early questions will have already been answered and you’ll be able to see the potential.

The teams ideas didn’t meet your expectations

Try this – Remember that these prototypes are new and therefore need a gentler type of feedback. Let people know what you think is good about their concept and what you still have questions about, using the “I like… I like….. I wonder” method. If you needed something more revolutionary or with a quicker implementation time, make that clear in your feedback. Their next iteration will be closer to the mark.

You couldn’t justify the funding or no-one wanted to pay for it.

Try this – Create a slush fund for experimenting with prototypes and getting early feedback from your customers or users. And treat it as the price of market entry. Nothing kills innovation quicker than internal infighting about whose cost centre it should be booked to.

Prototypes needed to be much more polished because “we can’t be seen to fail”.

Try this – Don’t demand perfection before you show prototypes to customers and users. The more polished a prototype is, the higher the expectations of your target audience. If people know it’s an early prototype they will forgive the flaws and give you much richer and more useful feedback. This will mean your polished version lands much better with the intended audience.

Making it safe for people to try

Try this – Give people permission to try and permission to fail responsibly. And then honour that. To be clear…by ‘failing responsibly’ we mean allowing teams to undertake early low cost, low risk experiments that help them learn something about their ideas. This is not the same as failing after lots of time and money have been piled in to it.

In fact don’t just give them permission, show some serious love to individuals and teams who try and even fail responsibly. Praise their efforts and celebrate what they learn. People are willing to put themselves out there, when they know someone has their back.


We help businesses like yours create cultures of innovation, powered by fearless, change-ready teams. Schedule a call with one of our senior team to discuss your challenges and aspirations, and how we can work together.

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