5 Keys to Leading Innovation

Josh Hay

innovation, leadership, leaders, workplace culture

[Excerpt from The Ordinary Leader]

As children, my siblings and I never had a shortage of ideas, and many of them were actually implemented in some form or another.  If an idea didn’t pan out, we would move on to the next one.  Being curious and creative was natural for us.  If we had an idea, we would pursue it.  There was no second-guessing, delaying of plans or meetings to determine budgets.  We simply tried things because we were curious and had the desire to create something unique.

Great innovators still embrace the curiosity of their inner child.  Their lives are not driven by fear. They still have the curiosity, courage and drive to keep exploring and pushing boundaries.

1. What’s Next

What’s next – I love those two words.  They excite me like few others.  What’s next!  These words speak of possibilities, change, potential and new frontiers.  What’s next keeps me up at night and gets me up in the morning.

I’m an ideas person.  I am always thinking, dreaming and scheming about the future.  I am always listening and watching for something, anything that sparks an idea.  I follow my curiosities down winding hidden pathways, sometimes literally! I ask questions with the inquisitiveness of a child, and I am open to any inspiration that might come my way.

I have learned that if I am not looking for and open to inspiration, ideas simply won’t come.  Inspiration is not something that just happens on its own.  Inspiration needs a willing partner: someone who is listening, who is open to hearing and most importantly someone to give it a helping hand.

2. Filter Ideas

Multiple ideas can come out of the question “What’s Next?”  In reality we won’t be able to follow them all, nor should we.  Some of these ideas will be bad ideas, or they will be things that are not a good fit for our organization.

Ideas need to be filtered and a determination made whether to follow them or leave them on the sidelines. Perhaps they will be picked up again at a later point.  However, if we set them aside, it is possible that they will be picked up by someone else and the opportunity lost.

I use several filters.  First, I think about the idea and jot some notes down to help me ascertain whether to follow it or now.  If I’m still drawn to the idea I then have conversations with others I trust. This serves to test my thinking about the value of the idea.  After these conversations the idea will either begin to fade or it will have grabbed hold of me even more.  If it is now firmly attached to me, the real action begins; now I have work to do.

3. Start Working

When that idea comes – driving down the road, in the shower, in my sleep – a mystical sensation overtakes me.  I’m full of life, energy and excitement.  I am overcome with inspiration and I can’t wait to get started!

Ideas need to be made.  What good are they if they remain only a concept, only a possibility? Ideas are born to be explored, to be built on, and to see where they take us, but they need work.

Start working.  Start something related to bringing your idea to life.  Too many people sit on an idea waiting for just the right time, waiting for a little more clarity before they start.  That’s when the inspiration begins to fade.

Ideas that sit there, that are left alone, will soon grow dormant and eventually wither and die.   Years later, someone else will have implemented the idea – your idea.  You will say to your friends, “I had that idea years ago, but I never got around to implementing it.”  Don’t let this happen.  Now is the time to get to work.  Start working when the inspiration is at its highest.

4. Keep Working

In bringing ideas to life, one does not typically move from one inspirational high to the next. I have found there is an in-between part where work needs to happen. Most of my time is spent laboring unglamorously to make my ideas happen.  I’m typing, writing, thinking, preparing and putting flesh to my ideas.  I am focused, intentional and methodical on my work.

Expect a stage when things are not happening as you planned and frustration sets in.  When these moments come, it is essential to just keep working.  Starting the work is the first step; continuing to work in times of frustration and discouragement is the second.  One must not only work when things are going well.  Perseverance in times of frustration is essential to make the idea come to life.

One of my favorite quotes on the importance of perseverance is attributed to the writer William Faulkner.  When asked if he wrote on a schedule or only when struck by inspiration his response was, “I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately, it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”  The meaning being, I will keep working regardless of how I am feeling on any given day.

Unfortunately, many ideas are never manifested because people have stopped working. There are a great number of people who never finish things.  They begin with the best intentions and then along the way they slow down and stop – they don’t finish what they started.

So please commit to finishing what you started – complete the idea!  You have control over this part.  You can keep working.  You can choose to work your tail off to bring your idea to life. You can’t choose how people will respond to what you complete, but you can choose to finish.

5. Move On

You have finished! Congratulations!  Now the bad news.  Regrettably, not all the ideas we finish will be great.  We will have toiled for hours, months and perhaps years on end only to find that the finished idea didn’t turn into what we hoped or dreamed.  Our ideas don’t always ferment.

One of the most important aspects of establishing an innovative organizational culture is embracing the fact that failure is a big part of innovation.  Trying something and failing is part of the process. The often-quoted Thomas Edison had this realization 100 years ago when he noted, “I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” All innovation involves the possibility of failure.  Failure should be viewed as a learning experience and a part of the process.

So stop sulking. Forget about it and move on to the next idea.  Don’t get stuck in your sadness.  Finish what you started, but if it doesn’t work move on. Don’t dwell on your failures, learn from them.

Then move on – always move on to what is next. 

Leading Innovation

Innovation comes easiest to those who are discontented with how things are – those who want to be better. Innovation is about working towards and beyond what is impossible and moving from what is current to what is better.

Leading innovation is about inspiring others to work towards growth and progress.  It is helping employees envision a different future and explore the possibilities of how to get there.

Leadership is key to fostering innovation. Leaders must act to support employees, by creating the right environment and giving them the necessary resources, support and autonomy they need.  In doing so, leaders will unleash the talent of employees to work towards developing useful innovations.


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The Author

Randy Grieser is the founder and CEO of ACHIEVE and author of ACHIEVE’s book, The Ordinary Leader: 10 Key Insights for Building and Leading a Thriving Organization. He is also a co-author of The Culture Question: How to Create a Workplace Where People Like to Work. Both books are available on our website.

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