How to Create a Culture of Innovation: A Guide for Leaders

By Next Step Partners
Partner, Next Step Partners

Recently, I led a workshop for a group of innovators who worked for a range of large companies–including Nike, Paypal, Biogen and other big names. These bright and capable people were tasked with leading change from within their respective organizations. However, while the organizations knew they needed to embrace innovation, these internal change agents often found themselves knocking on doors that wouldn’t open.

I remember “Alan” describing how frustrating it was to get one particular stakeholder on board for an innovation he was proposing that would clearly move the company forward. It would not only increase the company’s market share, but would also establish the company as a leader in the area of sustainable business. Although the change Alan was proposing involved risk and reorganization, he built a persuasive case for the potential and had outlined a clear path forward.

He had managed to earn the support of most stakeholders, except for one holdout. The holdout happened to be the gate-keeper who could actually squash the idea. Alan used every arrow in his quiver, including making the case repeatedly, backing his case up with solid data, but this particular leader debated or dismissed Alan’s arguments each time. Nothing moved this colleague until Alan stepped back and asked, “What would it take for you to say ‘yes’ to this?

This one question, because it forced the colleague to think in a new way, opened up the conversation and he began contributing to the design of the change rather than blocking it. By shifting from a stance of having all the answers to one of asking questions with curiosity, Alan’s own role shifted from supplicant to leader. Together, they were able to generate a better approach forward.

This isn’t just a story of influence and collaboration. It is an example of how leaders can create a culture of innovation.

Wired for Innovation

The capacity for invention is necessary for human survival. Creativity is more like a spigot that can be open or closed at will rather than a talent that only a lucky few possess. Everyone in your organization is a potential source for ideas that can improve your business in small and large ways.

So, how as leaders do we create a culture where the spigots of innovation can be turned on easily? To tap into the innate creativity of the organization, leaders need to do two things that often don’t come naturally to people: cultivate a growth mindset and lead with powerful questions.

Cultivate a Growth Mindset

It’s important for innovation-seeking leaders to adopt a growth mindset, where experimentation is embraced, fears are faced and failure is seen as a valuable opportunity to learn that will ultimately lead to success.

I once worked with an executive team that had been trying to shift the organization to a more transparent decision-making culture for quite some time. This would be a real innovation for how the organization operated, with promises of greater efficiency and effectiveness. The leaders understood that to achieve their objectives, they needed to stop backchannel attempts at influencing them, which slow down and undermine good decision making.

Yet the team was paralyzed by fear that saying no to long time influencers who were the source of the bad behavior would have dire consequences. Unless the leaders found a way to face their fears and block the back channel influencing, change would be impossible.

Fears staunch the flow of innovation: fear of catastrophe, fear of failure, fear of being wrong, and fear of losing short-term rewards. When these fears are entrenched in the organization and reinforced by the behavior of leaders themselves, the culture will align to maintain the safety of status quo.

Breakthrough for the executive team seeking better decision-making came when they began facing their fear head on and asking, “What would happen if we said ‘no’ to the long-time influencers?” This single question allowed the team to question their assumptions and consider alternative outcomes. They shifted from a fixed mindset that feared catastrophe if changes were made to a growth mindset that believed in the ability to evolve and refine through experimentation.

In the end, the executive team united to stop the backchannel influencing and there was no cataclysm. One of the people responsible for the bad behavior was ready to retire anyway. Employing a growth mindset and powerful questions helped the organization on its way to the culture change it had long sought.

It can be difficult for even the best leaders to maintain a growth mindset all of the time given the pace, stress and competitive dynamics of most workplaces. But unless this growth mindset is cultivated, efforts to create a culture of innovation will be fruitless. (To learn more about fixed and growth mindsets check out Mindset, by Stanford researcher Carol Dweck.)

Lead with Powerful Questions

Powerful questions aren’t just for unlocking stalemates. They are a foundational leadership tool that when used regularly will elevate your team’s innovation and agility.

“Anne” was an executive at an organization that had been recently acquired and she found herself responsible for a team that included areas with which she was substantively unfamiliar. She was accustomed to playing the role of expert advisor, but realized that she couldn’t become an expert overnight. She needed to lead a different way.

We worked on developing her ability to ask powerful questions. She discovered that this approach made her better able to clarify the problems, challenge assumptions and open up thinking. Asking good questions naturally led to innovative solutions and the support to execute them.

What are Powerful Questions?

Not all questions are powerful. Questions intended to confirm our own beliefs (such as, “Wouldn’t that be disastrous for the team?” or, “Have you tried the approach I have taken in the past?”) can help boost the ego, or raise concerns, but will block innovation. Closed ended-questions (such as, “Did you try that after multiple attempts at a different kind of solution?”) are helpful for gathering information, but not opening up thinking.

Powerful questions are characterized by curiosity. When you have a genuine desire to learn rather than know, you will naturally ask questions that will open up discussion and possible solutions. A growth mindset actually inspires good questions.

If you are interested in experimenting with incorporating powerful questions into your leadership, here are some examples to get you started:

  • If you could change one thing, what would it be?
  • What are some other ways we can approach this?
  • What would the impact be if we didn’t do this?
  • What are the best and worst aspects of our current approach?
  • Why must it be that way?
  • Imagine we were finished; what steps would we have taken to get there?
  • What’s possible here?
  • What approaches have you taken in the past and what made them successful?


From Expert Advisor to Coach and Facilitator

Asking powerful questions is the single most important leadership skill that can be readily learned by anyone, but it often requires a shift in the way a leader views his or her value and contribution.

While it can be gratifying (and safer) to be the expert advisor, the one with the answers, our own assumptions and personal biases block us from seeing other possibilities. When sizing up situations, we unconsciously scan for patterns that match our own experience and make a conclusive leap. This is a valuable skill when quick and decisive action is required.

The downside is that when we take things at face value, our perspectives are limited. We inevitably fail to see all the relevant details and possibilities. When someone comes to us with a problem and we dispense an answer, we cut off the innovative capacity of our team members. We miss different and potentially more effective solutions. (To learn more, Chip and Dan Heath outline this problem well in their book Decisive.)

Your Next Step to Level 5 Leadership

In the book Good to Great, author Jim Collins researched the characteristics of great companies, and those who lead them. He determined that “tenacious humility” is the essential element of what he calls “Level 5” leaders. These leaders are able to maintain a stance of not knowing even as they doggedly drive results. Their humility allows them to involve many partners in the process. They know that the value lies in being able to ask questions, not in having the answers.

Effective leaders know their value lies in being able to ask questions, not in having the answers. Share on XThe next time someone comes to you looking for your expert opinion, try taking a stance of curiosity about the problem, the assumptions, and the potential outcomes. Assume that the person in front of you possesses the key to solving the problem and experiment with powerful questions. You will not only be serving as a facilitator for innovation, but you will be modeling the behavior which will create a culture of innovation.

It can be difficult to make the shift from expert advisor to facilitator on your own. An executive coach can help you or your team break through your internal barriers to developing a growth mindset and a Level 5 leadership style. This is what we do and we’d love to help.



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