How to bring innovation leadership into your workplace

How to bring innovation leadership into your workplace

Many of us know the situation. You just attended a program or workshop that filled your mind with new possibilities. Perhaps you read a book about a new approach and you're excited to try out the concepts with your team. But now that you're back in the workplace, the new techniques feel different; they're not as brilliant as before and the audience is skeptical.


How do you deal with this? To grow in your innovation leadership, you need to take the learning home. Innovation leadership is anything but a theoretical exercise; it is all about taking action in real life situations, and so applying the learning is vital. What gets in the way?



These are 3 ways that you can successfully put learning around innovation leadership into practice:

  1. The right framing
  2. The right focus
  3. The right confidence

The Right Framing

A symptom of poor framing is when there is a big perceived disconnect between what you learned in your course or program and the processes within your organization. You may hear things like: “This is just jargon” or “It’s too playful”. For starters, recognize that the disconnect by itself is not a bad thing. If you learn something new, it will by definition be something you do not do already. But can you prevent this from becoming an obstacle?

The answer is communicate, communicate, and communicate. In other words, carefully give people a frame through which to see the new practices. There are three things to frame: frame the why, frame the words and frame the work.

Frame the why

Innovation leaders should always be ready to frame the “why” of the new innovation practices. Whether in meetings, at cocktail parties, in the elevator and at the espresso-machine, have your story ready and polished, with a story for the big picture and for the steps along the way.

Why innovate? What kind of innovation are we looking for? Incremental or game-changing and why? Why sense? Why vision? Why prototype? Why design for scale?

Craft your stories so that others can share them. Lobby up, down, and sideways to get support for spreading the why. Look for opinion-makers and connectors and shape your story with them. Begin storytelling before you go to the training, and then report back and shape even more; be transparent about why are taking training. If you suddenly find yourself on an island, it’s possible that you didn’t build bridges by sharing the story.

innovation leadership
Connect with your employees by giving them a frame to see new practices through. Frame the why, frame the words, and frame the work. Click To Tweet

Frame the words

When you learn something new, there’s no doubt you’ll learn new terms that are not yet in use in your organization. This language is often labelled as jargon. While new words are needed for new ideas and can be exciting, the danger lies in using too many or exposing people to them unnecessarily.

The key is to be selective which new words should enter your organization’s thinking and how to time their introduction. Try shortlisting the core new words that will be pivotal for your new innovation practices and make a plan for introducing these words organization-wide: a quick article in the company magazine, a mock dictionary on the cafeteria placemats, a tagline in internal emails.

Often the problem with jargon is not that there are new words, but that people feel left out when they hear a word they don’t know. Innovation leadership is about getting people on board, so spread the word(s) and they will work for you instead of against you.

Frame the work

You will need to frame each new activity in terms of the desired output, its place in the greater scheme of things, and which boundaries apply in terms of content and resources. Once that is framed there is a deeper kind of framing that is often needed. This refers to framing the type of work innovation is.

By framing innovation, you can help people understand the challenges they might run into and thus try to prevent people from feeling alienated. Depending on where you are in the process, you might describe innovation work as hit and miss work. Possibly even miss, miss, miss, miss, hit work. At certain points you’ll need to frame the work as divergent and messy because these parts usually are frustrating for very outcome-oriented people.

Likewise there are phases that are convergent and strictly selective which may frustrate people who are in love with their particular idea. Innovation is the type of the work where you will spend a lot of time not-knowing. As the saying goes: how can you expect to get somewhere new if you are not prepared to get lost on the way? If innovation is new to the people you are involving in your organization, help them by framing the work so that they have words for what they will experience and a way of looking at that experience that becomes inclusive rather than exclusive.

It is helpful to prepare people for a u-curve of emotion and energy. Explain that there will be a drop in energy at some point in the process and when that happens, remind your team that they are now at the bottom of the u-curve. Ask them to think of things that will get them on the way up again themselves before offering your own suggestions.

cultural adaptation curve for innovation leadership

If innovation is new to your team, prepare them for a u-curve of emotion and energy. Remind them when they are at the bottom of the curve and encourage them to come up with solutions for how they may return their energy back up.

The right focus

When innovation has no focus in your own priorities or those of the organization, it will be hard to transfer learning. Often there is focus on content rather than facilitation. For instance, an organization may have given innovation a high priority and a lot of attention goes out to the ideas, but there is a lack of focus on the process itself. At THNK, just like Pixar, an oft-heard phrase is ‘trust the process and trust the people’.

Innovation leadership should give focus to selecting a mix of good people, and they should focus on setting up good spaces with good materials to work with and then focus on finding the best facilitators inside or outside your company for the group sessions. If you can focus on making the process work well, the outcome will arrive at the end. This may become a mantra that you will need to frame and spread through your network of stakeholders as well: “Let’s focus on the process”. One insight we hear time and time again in our programs is that people are surprised that there is structured step-by-step way to be creative. These are proven best practices, so focus on getting them right and the results will come.

The right confidence

It takes confidence to get things done and it takes even more confidence to get something new done. People who have been around for a while in organizations sometimes groan because yet another program is announced. ‘”Nothing ever comes out of these things,” they mumble, or “it didn’t work last time they tried”. People don’t want to back a failure. Here it can be good to look for changes that were successful in the past and look to model elements of that, who was involved, when and how was it announced, etc.

When an innovation process is not taken seriously it can be a sign of something much bigger: that your company does not have the will to innovate. Here you may need the confidence to address this with senior management and challenge the powers that be to take steps to generate the will to innovate in the first place.

Finally you need confidence in your ability to facilitate the innovation process. Practice the easier tools first, possibly on a different topic, with people who are delighted to be there. One great way to get better and more confident about something is by teaching it to others. By having to explain the steps and activities you will accelerate your own learning.

How to bring innovation leadership into your workplace 1
It takes confidence to get things done and it takes even more confidence to get something new done. Click To Tweet

Again and Again

Just as innovation is an iterative process, where you continuously reflect, act, reflect and act again, transferring learning needs both action and reflection. Innovation leadership can reflect on which stakeholders are important for the process and what level of interest they might have in the innovation. Next, they can make a plan to get different stakeholders involved to different degrees. This is a good first step, but the real walking comes through acting on the plan, reflecting what worked and what didn’t and then acting again. Again and again.

We no longer live in a world where the right answer is just out there somewhere, where we can simply ask the right person or read the right book and then we have it. More and more, we live in a world where we have to discover the best answer by doing and looking at the effect of our doing and then refining it. Therefore small steps, easily taken and easily adjusted, are the way forward for implementing learning. This is especially true for innovation leadership; with small steps your team will spiral upwards towards mastery and bring others along with them on the way.

Join the THNK Executive Leadership Program to develop your own innovation leadership and discover how to take others with you on your journey to mastery.