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Society of Women Engineers

Say “Yes” to Innovation: A Six-Part Series on Cultivating an Atmosphere for Change

What is the role of leadership in innovation and how can engineers in particular use their strengths to create and sustain an innovative culture?

Published On: June 2017

Part 3: Behaviors that Create Cultures of Innovation

In our last blog in this series, we described in detail what an ideal culture of innovation looks like. In short, it’s a culture where people have the freedom and encouragement to ideate, (be creative), and to test out and develop their best ideas (innovate). In this one, we’ll discuss the role of leadership in innovation and how engineers in particular can use their strengths to create and sustain an innovative culture.

Larry Senn, another expert on organizational culture and leadership says: “Culture is the shadow of the leader.” So true! Leaders’ behaviors and actions set the tone; the shadow they cast influences the behaviors and actions of everyone they lead. For example, a belligerent leader creates a culture in which people don’t speak up for fear of “setting the boss off.” An indecisive leader casts a shadow of risk aversion.

How, then, does a leader cast a shadow of innovation? Simply by adopting the right behaviors.

Some of the most important innovative behaviors are Creativity, Collaboration, Confidence, Continual Improvement, Empowerment, and Execution. When leaders demonstrate these behaviors, they rub off on those around them. An innovative culture takes root.

Think of it as the behavioral equivalent of Newton’s Third Law of Motion – forces come in action-reaction pairs – with a key difference. The reaction of staff to the behaviors of leaders is not opposite, it’s parallel. People will adopt behaviors that are complementary to those of the leader.

So, let’s imagine what the leader’s actions in those six areas might look like and what their team members might do in reaction to them.

These are all examples of leadership behaviors that, if demonstrated consistently, create cultures where the innovators – those with the crazy ideas – can flourish.[i]

Of course, it doesn’t happen easily or overnight. Leaders must examine their own behaviors and deliberately modify them as needed to create and sustain this innovative culture. They must communicate verbally, as well as through their actions, their expectations for how the team members should act. And leaders must not only plant the seeds for innovation, they must consistently nurture and support innovators.

The good news for engineers is that they have clear advantages in creating an innovation culture.

  • Applied creativity is a part of the successful engineer’s toolkit. Engineers are skilled at turning theory into practice, moving easily from theoretical construct to real-world application.
  • Most engineers are good listeners. They understand that the more you learn from those closest to the situation, the better you are at solving a problem and/or finding a better way.
  • Engineers tend to be good collaborators because they spend so much time working on teams as part of projects. They understand the need to get along with colleagues, draw out and work through differences of opinion, and otherwise participate effectively toward accomplishing a common goal.
  • Natural curiosity is pretty much a given for an engineer. A great engineer is continually examining things and thinking of ways to do things better.

But the engineer’s natural behavioral tendencies can also present special challenges to innovation.[ii]

  • Engineers love to solve problems. This is a good thing, but it can also lead to tunnel vision, where an early idea captures the imagination to the exclusion of other, perhaps better, alternatives. Once this happens the engineer’s tendency is to focus on that one idea and get to the solution quickly. This obscuring of the bigger picture can hamper disruptive innovation. (Remember we talked about disruptive innovation in the first blog in this series? As a refresher, it’s “a process by which a product or service evolves over time, following a path from the fringe – the low end of the market or a new market) to the mainstream ­– eroding the first incumbents’ market share and then their profitability.”[iii])
  • Engineers are sticklers for detail – both a blessing and a curse. This detail orientation drives a desire to have all the “i’s” dotted and the “t’s” crossed. No ambiguity! Unfortunately, innovation is messy and often fraught with ambiguity. To successfully innovate, engineers must move past the need for certainty and take risks, even when all the desired information isn’t available.
  • This leads to another engineers’ trait: they are data-driven. Data is essential for effective decision making, but an over-reliance on data can lead to “analysis paralysis” and the inability to move forward and innovate.
  • Engineers like to build things. This is an especially useful trait for prototyping. Again, though, they just need to be careful not to become so enamored by an idea that they lose sight of the bigger picture and other alternatives that might be out there.

Clearly, engineers possess tendencies that both enable and challenge innovative cultures. As women engineers, you have the natural ability to recognize these and to turn both to your advantage. I’ll talk about this in my next blog.

About the Author


Patricia Schaeffer

Patricia Schaeffer is co-founder of Talent Strategy Partners, a leadership development consulting firm that collaborates with executives to identify and develop a pipeline of emerging leaders ready to fill mission-critical positions. You can reach Pat at (215) 275-7430 or

[i] Rottenberg, Linda. Crazy is a Compliment: The Power of Zigging When Everyone Else Zags. Portfolio/Penguin, 2014.

[ii] Jeffrey Phillips. Engineers, Marketers and Innovation. Innovate on Purpose, October, 9, 2009.

[iii] Clayton M. Christensen, Michael E. Raynor, and Rory McDonald. What is Disruptive Innovation. Harvard Business Review, December 2015.

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