The 4 Unexpected Ways Leaders Spark Innovation

What do Abraham Lincoln, King Arthur and Mahatma Gandhi have in common? No, this is not the start to a bad joke. These famed leaders are known for their ability to assemble disparate teams who, collectively, accomplished the “unaccomplishable.” They utilized techniques and strategies that brought the best out of their people. Not just hard work, but innovative thinking that changed the world.

Lincoln abolished slavery, by establishing a team of his “enemies.” Arthur defended England from the Saxons by empowering his comrades via the legendary Round Table. Gandhi established a peaceful force so powerful and so innovative that it defeated the British Empire without a single drop of blood being spilled.

Innovation can win wars without a single fight or change the course of a nation divided. You can have radical impact too, but only if you empower you team in some very unexpected ways. It requires one extraordinary step, though. You must be willing to challenge your own beliefs.


  1. Productivity Stops Innovation Cold In Its Tracks

I suspect as you read that subtitle you either rolled your eyes or threw up in your mouth a little. I mean, how could something so critical to corporate success – productivity – be the one thing that prevents innovation? If anything, you would assume the opposite is true. The reality is leaps in productivity occur when a new way of getting things done is discovered. That happens through innovation.

The constant pressure for higher productivity, is the exact reason innovation gets frozen. Productivity is a short term measurement, tracking how much got done during the last hour, day or week. And with constant pressure to be productive, every day there is more and more work piled on. The drive for productivity becomes a never ending cycle to produce more. With the constant focus on getting things done, the time and freedom to find a better way to get those things done, goes out the window.

Innovation requires time, deep thought and mistakes, the exact things that a highly productive team doesn’t have time for. So the next time you want to improve productivity, give your team the time to innovate. As my grandmother said, “It’s impossible to have a workable pan if all you do is keep frying eggs.”


  1. Uber-Collaborative Workspaces Kill Innovation

Walk into any modern office and the setup is full of open spaces. The idea is simple if people can talk they can share ideas. But few people excel in environments of constant distraction, and in many cases these workspaces cause the introverted intellectuals to fizzle out.

Thomas Edison, arguably the leader of one of the greatest innovate teams in history, establish a work environment that was a key to radical innovation. He realized that conversation is enlightening, yet silence is golden. So he gave his team both. Edison configured his Menlo Park Laboratory to offer his talented workers opportunities to mingle and argue ideas, or to work in seclusion for as long as they needed (hours, days or even weeks). Edison’s goal was to bring about world changing innovations. His strategy was to give the workers the exact environment that they thrived in, at the exact time they needed it.


  1. Words Don’t Inspire, Actions Do

A fundamental human behavior is the law of reciprocity. Simply put, human beings are wired to respond in kind to the behavior of another. For example, if you walk down the street and someone waves to you (even if you don’t immediately recognize them) you feel compelled to wave back. The feeling to respond in kind to a person who waved to you is the behavior of reciprocity. It happens in all circumstance, not just friendly greetings. If someone talks behind your back, you are likely to talk behind theirs. If someone says you are doing a great job at your review and then decides to demote you, the action wins (not the words) and you will surely reciprocate with ill will toward your (jerk) boss.

To inspire your team to be loyal to you, you must first be loyal to them. To inspire your team to work smarter, you must challenge yourself to work smarter for them. To inspire a team to be innovative, you must challenge yourself to be embrace innovation and been an innovator yourself.

There is no way around it. Your team will measure your actions and reciprocate in kind. It’s law. Behavioral law.


  1. Encourage Failure

Sara Blakely the founder of Spanx (which generates an impressive $250M in annual revenue and more impressive net profit margin estimated at 20%) attributes her success to her father’s daily inquiry “What did you fail at today?” Blakely had been steeped in a core element of innovation: failure.

For your team to successfully innovate they need to experiment and explore the unknown. And whenever you enter the realm of the unknown you are bound to fail. In fact, the only way to succeed is by failing, learning and improving.

For you team to successfully innovate, you must set up an environment where failure is expected. Setup an environment where failure is encouraged in a unique way: Fail often and fail early. The earlier you fail, the less costly it is. The more often you fail, the sooner you find the solution.

As famed as Thomas Edison is for all his innovations, he and his team had a constant string of failures. But Edison understood the importance of failure and encouraged it. In his own words, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”


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