“What do I need to do to support my people to be more innovative?”

This is one of the most common questions I hear from executive leaders that I work with. As well as understanding the how of innovation, they are also keen to hear how they can support their staff.

However, when I share with them the single biggest thing they can do, I am met with a combination of surprise, denial, and then finally a realisation that there is actually a lot more that they need to be doing.

Several years ago, Clayton Christensen from Harvard Business School, along with Jeffrey Dyer and Hal Gregersen, ran one of the biggest studies that has been done to date on what truly differentiates leaders at highly innovative companies from the rest of the pack. They surveyed over 3,000 executives and 500 individuals who had started innovative companies or created innovative products.

Their research revealed a huge difference between executives at innovative companies and those at non-innovative companies. Executives at non-innovative companies saw it as their role to oversee innovation and essentially delegate it to those below them.

In stark contrast, the executives at highly innovative companies did the creative work themselves. For them, it was too important to just delegate out to others.

Specifically, leaders at innovative companies spend 50% more time than executives with no track record of innovation on what the researchers call “Discovery skills”.

If you are a CEO or senior executive hoping to lead innovation at your organisation, focus your development and behaviour on these five Discovery skills,

Five Discovery skills

  1. Associating

    The most innovative leaders focus on taking in a large amount of information, and regularly consume stimulus and data from industries outside their own. They are skilled at making seemingly unrelated connections between these disparate pieces of information.

  2. Questioning

    The best leaders are great at asking questions. They are naturally curious and have learnt how to ask effective questions that lead to insights. Their questions often begin with ‘why’, ‘why not?’ and ‘what if’.

    In addition to asking great questions, they are constantly questioning the status quo. They regularly crush assumptions and imagine what might be possible, as opposed to accepting what is.

  3. Observing

    Innovative leaders spend a lot of time observing customers. Unlike their less innovative counterparts, who simply delegate customer research to the marketing department or research agencies, these leaders spend time in the field watching customers. They then use the insight gained to help shape truly customer-driven innovations.

  4. Experimenting

    Rather than hiding behind business cases that are generally full of flawed assumptions, leaders at innovative companies get out of the building and run actual experiments with customers to test their thinking. They refuse to simply assume something to be true, and instead, act like a scientist, set hypotheses, test customer behaviour, and iterate their ideas accordingly.

    At Inventium, one of the ways we know a client is serious about innovation is when executive teams attend our training sessions on topics such as Experimentation – it signals to us that they are committed to innovation and changing their behaviour as opposed to just changing others.

  5. Networking

    The most innovative leaders dedicate time to building diverse networks. Rather than just flocking to the usual suspects (industry peers), they deliberately seek relationships with those outside their industry with completely different perspectives on the world.

As a leader, it is worth reflecting on how confident you feel in these five critical capabilities, and what percentage of an average working week you would engage in them.

If most of the above is foreign to you, remember that the above five skills are highly trainable and malleable. So if you are committed to driving innovation at your organisation, start by making changes to your own behaviour before you expect it of others.