Four innovation leadership skills to master

As automation continues to rewrite the future of work, Evette Cordy highlights four qualities all leaders must have if they want to keep up with the pace of change

Four innovation leadership skills to master

To thrive in an increasingly complex and unpredictable new world, leaders will require the skills of the future. To lead growth agendas, what matters most is not leaders’ intellectual intelligence or confidence in what they know, but how they deal with what they don’t know. It’s also about whether leaders are courageous and inspire their teams to seek creative ways of commercializing solutions. It is this innovation leadership that will give companies a competitive advantage in the face of continuous disruptive change.

Innovation agendas often fail not because of a lack of process or tools, but because people lack the skills required for innovation leadership. Do your leaders have the necessary skills for the future? Here are four that will turbo-charge your organization’s innovation efforts.

1. The ability to handle ambiguity

Ambiguity is all around us. We don’t know what we don’t know, yet we like to know because it helps us to feel more comfortable and in control. Leaders’ need for certainty can kill innovation. It reduces their ability to let go of the known and make space for new, unknown insights and ideas.Imagine you’re in a leadership team meeting and someone asks how the latest innovation project is going. All heads turn to the leader, waiting for their response. They don’t know yet – it’s too early; they haven’t even defined the right problem to solve – yet they feel compelled to respond. Leaders need permission to say, “I don’t know yet, but we’re learning a lot.”

Leaders who can hold space for ambiguity and continue to inspire their teams in the face of increasing complexity are those most likely to create a pathway to breakthrough thinking. Sit with ambiguity and plan to ‘not know’ for a bit longer.

2. A curious mindset

Leaders should spend less time in the office and more time walking in their customers’ shoes to view the world through their eyes and discover their hopes, fears and values – noticing what delights them and observing their irritations, frustrations and pain points.

Leaders who curiously observe what customers say and do and seek to understand what deeply matters to them will find the most valuable problems to solve – and, in doing so, will create more meaningful solutions for customers. By creating such an environment of curiosity, leaders can inspire employees to ask questions, to learn and to seek problems and solutions. Employees are more open to discovering new things, leading to richer insights and platforms for problem-finding – and, ultimately, innovation. Here are five questions leaders can encourage their employees to ask regularly:

  • Why?
  • How might we?
  • What if ?
  • Why not?
  • What did you learn?

3. Creative thinking

Creativity is critical for breakthrough thinking and innovation, and scientific research has shown that creativity can be cultivated. The more leaders approach challenges flexibly and imaginatively, the easier it will become to generate original ideas.

Research has suggested that people who are good at creative thinking are also good at seeing connections and generating more original ideas. By training our leaders’ abilities to see connections, we can boost their ability to think creatively.

Thinking of alternative uses for an object is a simple activity to train leaders’ minds to make new connections and, in turn, boost their creative thinking. This exercises your mind by stretching beyond the obvious uses to imagine an object outside of its usual context. Pick a random object, such as a paper clip. Now take precisely three minutes to write down as many alternative uses as you can. Challenge yourself to come up with more than 20 ideas in three minutes.

4. The willingness to be brave

Most of us spend 99% of our workday playing it safe, following the rules, processes and protocols. Structure and order are there for a reason, but any deviation from the norm can be viewed as negative, risky or dangerous to the integrity of the organization.

Imagine you’re in a leadership meeting and hold a strong view on which ideas should be prioritized based on the rigorous customer-led process your team has been through to develop and prioritize the ideas, completely disagreeing with what has been decided. Yet you sit there and nod your head in agreement.

In most cases, conformity is the norm. Leaders don’t choose to agree with others because their perception has altered – they go along with it because they don’t want to stand out. Many leaders fear failure, being wrong, looking silly or feeling embarrassed at work. This happens often and is costly to innovation efforts. Leaders need to embrace risk-taking, challenge the status quo, and bravely speak up and dissent.

Are you ready for innovation to thrive in your organization? These four leadership skills should be practiced and mastered alongside a robust innovation process to enhance your innovation efforts. Consider incorporating them into leaders’ job descriptions and KPIs to encourage and reward such behaviours.

And keep in mind that these are not one-off activities – to get skilled, they require repeated effort and discipline.

Evette Cordy is an innovation expert, registered psychologist and the chief investigator and co-founder of Agents of Spring. She uses curiosity and creativity to help organizations create human-centred products and services and facilitate new ways of thinking. She is also the author of Cultivating Curiosity: How to Unearth Your Most Valuable Problem to Inspire Growth. For more information, visit