The Top 5 Leadership Skills for Sustained Innovation

Anyone can innovate once. All it takes is a good idea, some hard work, sufficient resources, and a little bit of luck.

However, today’s business environment demands ongoing innovation to stay ahead of the pack. To make innovation a way of life for your company, get to work developing these five leadership skills:

1. Challenge your assumptions

The biggest enemy of innovation is the unspoken attitudes and beliefs we cling to about our customers, markets and businesses. And the more success we achieve based on those assumptions, the more we tend to focus on protecting the status quo versus exploring what could be.

To develop the skill of challenging your assumptions, ask: What has changed with our customers, markets, industry, or the world at large? What assumptions are we continuing to make about our business simply because we “know them to be true”? What ideas for new products or services have we come up with recently but didn’t follow through because “that will never work”?

Today’s market leaders get ahead by shedding old ideas and ways of thinking faster than their competitors. This can only happen by challenging your assumptions on a regular basis.

2. Change your perspective

The human brain tends to screen in data that proves us right and screen out anything that contradicts our prevailing point of view. As a result, we often filter, distort, or ignore the information coming in, so that we only see what we want to see.

Changing your perspective enables the brain to break out of its rigid thinking patterns and see the world in new and different ways. It opens the mind to new possibilities, and focuses your attention on what could be rather than what is or what was. It also enables you to spot new patterns and connections that others might not see – a critical factor for successful innovation.

Changing your perspective doesn’t mean throwing out all your old ideas. Just the ones that get in the way of ongoing innovation.

3. Ask the right questions

Questions offer a powerful tool for opening people up to new ideas and possibilities. Too often, however, they keep people stuck in the past by focusing on the problem rather than the solution. For example: “Why hasn’t your team come up with a new product this quarter? What are you going to do differently to innovate?” These kinds of questions put people on the defensive and shut down creative thinking.

Instead, ask future, active, past tense questions that get people thinking and acting like the desired future state is already happening. For example: When we have successfully innovated, what does the new product look like? What problems is it solving for our customers? How is it bringing new value to the marketplace?

Imagining that the innovation already exists shifts people’s attention from why they can’t do something to what they did to achieve it. Once this shift has been made, the brain fills in with all sorts of options on how to achieve the goal.

4. Question the right answer

From an early age we’re taught that there is only one right answer to every problem. As a result, we often pass over potentially better solutions because we’re so sure the one we have is right.

In business, almost all problems have multiple solutions. Some are better, easier, cheaper, or more feasible than others. But very rarely do we encounter situations where there is only one right answer. To nurture ongoing innovation, forget about finding THE right answer. Instead, focus on identifying as many potential answers as possible. Then choose the best one (or combination of ones) that most supports your innovation goal.

Never settle for the first good answer, even when it seems like THE right answer. Good often gets in the way of great.

5. Stop jumping to solutions

Today’s hyper-fast business world creates a lot of pressure to make quick decisions. So we often tend to go with the first feasible solution rather than looking for better or different ideas. Not a good recipe for ongoing innovation!

To encourage your team to look for different and/or better solutions, ask, “What underlying attitudes or beliefs are causing us to see this as the best or only solution?” Then solicit alternative viewpoints from people who see things differently. For example, “It sounds like we’re all in agreement on the solution here. Does anyone see it differently?”

Ask “What if…?” questions to look beyond the solution at hand. “What if our ‘right’ answer is wrong? What if there is another way to look at this problem? What if we looked at it from the customer’s perspective; how would they solve this problem?”

Ultimately, innovation comes down to changing the way we think and learning to see the world differently. No easy task, but it can be done. And those who make it a habit will reap the rewards that ongoing innovation can bring.

Call to action: Pick one of these leadership skills and work on it for the next month.

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Holly G GreenHolly is the CEO of THE HUMAN FACTOR, Inc. ( and is a highly sought after and acclaimed speaker, business consultant, and author. Her unique approach to creating strategic agility, helping others go slow to go fast, will change your thinking.

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3 Responses to The Top 5 Leadership Skills for Sustained Innovation

  1. Ben Simonton says:

    Great subject Holly.

    From personal experience, the only leadership skill required to unleash huge amounts of innovation is the skill to lead employees to become highly motivated, highly committed, and fully engaged with very high morale literally loving to come to work and at least 300% more productive than if poorly engaged.

    This is a very easy to learn and execute leadership skill, one I used in several turnarounds. It leads to extremely sustainable high levels of innovation by virtue of converting at least 80% of the 95% of all employees who are conformists/followers, some more and some less, into being non-followers.

    Why? Because non-followers don’t waste the huge amount of brainpower conforming/following requires and thus apply 100% of their brainpower (all of the natural creativity, innovation, and productivity) on their work. Non-followers cannot be led to being less productive or less innovative thus making their innovation highly sustainable.

    The only caveat to the word “easy” is that executives/managers tied to the top-down command and control approach to managing people cannot be successful unless they shift to the opposite approach. I call that autonomy and support.

    Best regards, Ben

  2. Pingback: Innovation Excellence | The Top 5 Leadership Skills for Sustained Innovation | Technology and Leadership in Education |

  3. Pingback: Innovation Excellence | The Top 5 Leadership Skills for Sustained Innovation | Open Innovation Portal |

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