Nine Behaviors That Drive Innovation

March 4, 2022

Nine Behaviors That Drive Innovation

It seems that organizations consistently face two challenges. One is the challenge of human capital—especially leadership—and the other is the challenge of innovation. Innovation is an ascending issue around the world. In our own practice, we believe these two challenges are intertwined. Peak levels of innovation are extremely dependent on the quality of leadership in the organization. When leadership is strong, these organizations seem to invariably lead on the innovation dimension as well.

One finding from the research my colleague Joe Folkman and I have done on approximately 60,000 leaders who had received 360-degree feedback data from nearly 830,000 colleagues was that innovation usually sits in the middle of the competencies we measure. However, the bosses of our participants placed it lower. They consistently ranked innovation at 13 out of the 16 competencies we most frequently measure.

What do successful leaders do that elevates innovation to a higher level? By parsing out the people who received the highest scores on innovation, we were able to see what other behaviors align with high innovation. Because nearly every organization seeks to escalate innovation, this understanding is a valuable insight.

We found several behaviors that appear to drive innovation:

  1. Leaders jointly created a vision with their colleagues. Some have thought leadership is about coming up with a grand strategy and then enticing the troops to follow you up the hill. But our data showed leaders creating a vision collaboratively, not in a directive manner.
  2. They built trust. We interviewed leaders in the top 1% of their organization on creativity. One quality stood out. These leaders trusted their people and, in turn, their colleagues had enormous trust in them. One person noted, “To take a risk demands that you feel really safe.” “She always has our back,” said another.
  3. Innovation champions were characterized by a willingness to constantly challenge the status quo. People described innovative leaders as fearless and doing what’s right versus what may be politically correct. Some highly effective leaders of innovation were characterized as being “inverse to the environment.”
  4. Leaders who fostered innovation were noted for their deep expertise. Colleagues noted that it was this quality that defined these leaders. These leaders had a wide range of intellectual curiosity on a horizontal axis, while at the same time were grounded deeply in their knowledge of the technology at the center of what their group did.
  5. They set high goals. Leaders who created innovative teams set the bar extremely high and gave their colleagues the challenge and opportunity to achieve what they believed would be beyond their reach.
  6. Innovative leaders gravitated toward speed. These leaders move at a quick pace. They believe things can be accomplished sooner, not later. They gravitate toward the quick prototype put together with duct tape and paper clips in one day over a perfect result they could create in six months. The graph below shows 360 results for 57,113 leaders rated on their speed of execution and their ability to innovate. Note that leaders who move slowly are on average rated at the 12th percentile on their ability to innovate, while those who are in the top 10 percent are at the 89th percentile.
    9 Behaviors That Drive Innovative Leadership
  7. They craved information. Innovative leaders keep the team on the same page by flooding them with relevant facts. They excel at asking good questions and then being exceedingly good listeners. The combination of “catch and pitch” helps the team to excel at innovation.
  8. They excelled at teamwork. The next characteristic of the most innovative leaders was excelling at teamwork and collaboration. It was never about “me.” It was always about the team creating something of value.
  9. They valued diversity and inclusion. The most innovative leaders recognize that the creative process feeds on bringing people together who possess sharply differing views and experiences. It is the blending of these elements that creates highly innovative solutions.

Our greatest insight from this analysis is that innovation is very seldom a one-person show. It is nearly always a team effort, and the culture that spawns that effort is the result of a leader who recognizes the organizational need for innovation and recognizes the contribution leaders make to create a culture from which innovation emerges.

—Jack Zenger
Connect with Zenger Folkman on LinkedInTwitter, and Facebook.

(This article first appeared on Forbes)