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

Creating a culture of innovation requires mastering a set of key behavioral skills. Everyone – leaders and followers alike – must demonstrate these skills.
Say “yes” To Innovation: A Six-part Series On Cultivating An Atmosphere For Change

Part 5: Developing Innovation Skills: For Leaders and Followers

Say “yes” To Innovation: A Six-part Series On Cultivating An Atmosphere For Change
There are two important things I hope you take away from this blog series. The first is that creating a culture of innovation requires mastering a set of key behavioral skills: Creativity, Collaboration, Confidence, Continual Improvement, Empowerment, and Execution (Blog 3). And the second is that everyone – leaders and followers alike – must demonstrate these skills.

The Role of Followership in Innovation

I’ve talked a lot about leadership as the linchpin in creating an innovation culture. What I haven’t talked about is something just as critical: followership. A well-functioning innovation culture needs followers – team players – not just leaders. Rob Ashgar, author of Leadership is Hell: How to Manage Well and Escape with Your Soul, writes: “A skilled follower helps an inexperienced leader to shine. As the leader grows in skill, …she is then able to help the followers shine. And as they all grow in experience and skill, the interplay grows more productive….”

So please don’t think that if you aren’t in a leadership role, you have nothing to contribute to the creation of a culture of innovation. You certainly do! And just as with leaders, it’s a matter of developing those key behavioral skills.

Getting Ready to Innovate

Behavioral skill development typically comes through four channels: formal training events (workshops, symposia, seminars, etc.), topical articles and books, coaching and mentoring, and on-the-job activities. Many organizations provide training and have coaching or mentoring programs. If your employer offers these opportunities to you, take advantage of them. But whether your company does or doesn’t provide these resources, you must take accountability for your own development.

The good news is, there’s a lot you can do on your own to enhance your innovation skills. For example, you can form a mentoring relationship even if your organization has no formal mentoring program. A mentoring relationship is a genuine, two-way relationship between two colleagues. The role of a mentor is to guide you in your professional development. A mentor doesn’t provide on-the-spot coaching or training – that’s your manager’s job. Rather, a mentor helps you to think through issues and approaches and serves as a source of wisdom based on experience and knowledge of your organization. Here is a link to a brief but useful article on this topic: A Guide to Understanding the Role of a Mentor.

I’m going to devote the rest of this blog to a discussion of other actions both leaders and followers can take to develop – and help others to develop – each of the six key behavioral skills for the creation of an innovation culture in your organization. These include both on-the-job activities and suggested topical readings.


To develop creativity in yourself, think openly. When you address a new problem, resist the tendency to first gather extensive conceptual information or data to create the parameters of your thinking. This tends to close off more creative thinking and possibilities. Instead, force yourself to spend time thinking about solutions that may not have been tried before and to develop hunches about what might work. After you’ve come up with new possibilities, gather necessary data or conceptual information that may be relevant to “reality testing” your theories.

To develop creativity in others, nurture ideation. Encourage the development of creative ideas and approaches by being open-minded as you address problems with your direct reports and peers. Ask for new ideas and demonstrate that you value them and will consider them seriously. One way to encourage others’ contributions and creative ideas is to offer up one or two or your own and then ask them for other possibilities.


To gain greater insight into creativity, read Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull.

Say “yes” To Innovation: A Six-part Series On Cultivating An Atmosphere For Change

To develop collaboration in yourself, keep others informed. For every team you are on, keep a running list of issues and information you should share with the group. Check the items off the list after you have communicated them.

To develop collaboration in others, help them become team players. Create a project that requires your team to work closely together. Provide them with the broad parameters of your expectations, as opposed to detailed direction. With the team, create a shared goal(s) and other design elements that require mutual cooperation for successful completion. Maintain control strategically by meeting regularly with the team to have them report progress. Set an example of good teamwork during these meetings by sharing relevant information with them, making sure everyone has a chance to speak, and guiding them to resolve any conflicts that may arise among them. Publicly praise those who demonstrate collaborative behaviors, and privately coach those who do not, being specific in both your coaching and praise.

To gain greater insight into collaboration, read Collaboration Begins with You: Be a Silo Buster by Ken Blanchard, Jane Ripley, and Eunice Parisi-Carew.


To develop confidence in yourself, voice your concerns. Before you attend a meeting on an important issue, spend time thinking through the issue and crystalizing your ideas and positions on it. Make notes about these to refer to later as you participate in the meeting. Communicate your ideas and positions during the meeting in an assertive and clear – but not aggressive – manner, especially when disagreement or conflict surfaces. As debate occurs, make sure you first understand the others’ positions, then air your own views backed by facts and data. Look for areas of agreement and point them out. Push for agreement after debate of ideas, but don’t be too quick to follow others to consensus around their positions or to accommodate someone else’s point of view simply to minimize friction. Again, throughout the discussion, avoid being aggressive or argumentative. If things get uncomfortably heated, say something funny to break the tension or suggest the group adjourn, think about things individually, and come back together at a later date.

To develop confidence in others, share the power. The next time you are given the authority to lead an initiative, have the strength and confidence to distribute the power and decision making among a few key colleagues and/or direct reports and yourself. Encourage others to take intelligent risks and to generate creative ideas for achieving the desired results. Credit others for shared achievement. To minimize risk, exercise “strategic control.” This means focusing others on understanding and achieving exactly what you want to achieve. Stay “in charge” but be collaborative, not directive or micro-managing.

To gain greater insight into confidence, read The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance – What Women Should Know by Katie Kay and Claire Shipman. 

To develop continual improvement in yourself, question current practices.
Think objectively about how you are currently going about your daily activities. Pinpoint an area where there is clearly room for improved efficiency or improved service. It can be an incremental improvement; it doesn’t have to be a blockbuster idea. In fact, it’s better to start your continual improvement journey with a small win. Bring your suggestion to your manager’s attention and volunteer to lead an initiative to develop and implement an improvement plan. If your manager agrees, put your plan together, involving others as necessary and appropriate in making this improvement.

To develop continual improvement in others, make it a regular discussion topic. Ask each member of your staff to be on the lookout for potential problems and for examples of improvements in quality, safety or efficiency. At the beginning of your regularly scheduled staff meetings, ask people to report on their observations of problems and improvements. For each potential problem raised, determine how to look into the matter and assign a volunteer in the group to do so. When you hear of a great example of quality, safety, or efficiency, discuss what can be learned and how it might apply in other areas of the organization. Maintain an ongoing information exchange using staff meeting time or in a forum specifically dedicated to continual improvement.

To gain greater insight into continual improvement, read Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) Directions and Examples and/or Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA): Continually Improving, in a Methodical Way.

To develop empowerment in yourself, take charge. Review the initiatives in which you have a primary role. Think ahead about potential obstacles and opportunities. Propose to your manager new and innovative action steps that could be undertaken to mitigate these obstacles and take advantage of the opportunities. When you have your manager’s support, execute your plan.

Say “yes” To Innovation: A Six-part Series On Cultivating An Atmosphere For Change

To develop empowerment in others, build staff confidence. Think about your staff and their expertise. Then, think about the decisions you usually make about how things should be done. Ask yourself which of these decisions you can delegate to your staff, based on their expertise. Demonstrate your trust in them by clearly communicating the results you are looking for, then getting out of the way to allow staff to decide the best way to get the job done.

To gain greater insight into empowerment, read Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace by Dennis Reina, PhD, and Michelle Reina, PhD.


To develop execution in yourself, establish an action plan. Lay out a clear plan of attack for the goals that you are expected to achieve. But first, make sure you understand the results you are aiming for. If any of those are unclear, ask your manager for clarity about expected outcomes. Then, lay out the action steps you’ll need to take, identifying the co-dependencies so that you tackle them in logical sequence. List the potential obstacles you might encounter and determine how you’ll mitigate them. Build obstacle mitigation into your action steps. Create a timeline for the entire initiative and for each step. Identify the resources you’ll need to achieve the goal, including help you’ll need from other people. If there are resources – like equipment – you can’t muster on your own, ask your manager to help you obtain them. Put your plan into action and don’t be afraid to tweak it when unexpected situations pop up. Finally, keep your manager informed.

To develop execution in others, establish priorities. When everything is important, nothing is important and little gets done. Successful execution requires focusing on a few things at a time. To create focus, list each key project or initiative that your team is working on. Create one timeline showing all the projects/initiatives. Color code or otherwise indicate the top priorities, the next-highest-level priorities, and so on. Review this with your staff. In your regular staff meetings, review progress on the projects/initiatives that are the current focus. Stay flexible and change priorities as situations change, but don’t make the mistake of taking on too much at one time. If an initiative is added or is moved up in priority order, another initiative must be pushed down in the queue.

To gain greater insight into execution, read Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done by Larry Bossidy, Ram Charan, and Charles Burke and/or Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, by Greg McKeown.

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I hope, whether you are a follower or a leader, these ideas will jump start your innovation skill development. There’s so much more you can do. Use your imagination, come up with your own development actions, and – most of all – have fun as you gain skill.

And as you think about your innovation skill development action plan, ask yourself: “Why am I doing this? Where’s the payoff?”  We’ll help you find the answers in the last blog in this series where we’ll get to the bottom line, measuring the business impact of innovation.

Patricia Schaeffer

About the Author

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