Creating Innovation asks you to think outside the box. It asks you to discover opportunities and possibilities. And since you are an executive, it requires you to foster an environment of creativity and forward thinking.

Steve Jobs, famed for his skill in creating innovation, with the iPhone 4

Steve Jobs with one of Apple’s most innovative products, the iPhone. Photo by Matthew Yohe, CC BY-SA.

Steve Jobs had a tremendous strength in creating innovation. In an interview with Inc., he said, “You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new.” Jobs was known for proactively creating solutions through innovation and would have likely ranked high in the competency of Creating Innovation.

As an executive, you need to draw creativity from your organization while challenging existing paradigms. You must also build a culture that accepts trying, failing, and trying again. A culture that embraces these risks facilitates the most creative and effective results.

How to Create Innovation as an Executive

1. Think More Outside the Box

Boxes, by definition, are limiting. They pre-determine what can’t be done. Yes, limits exist—but it’s better to discover them than to set them yourself! Why? Because:

  • The limits might exist only in your mind, not in reality.
  • If they do exist, they are probably not as constricting as the ones you box yourself in with.

The impossible is achieved all the time. All it takes is a new way of thinking.

2. Discover More Possibilities

How can you do this? Where do more possibilities come from, and how do you unearth them?

  1. Realize that more possibilities always exist.
  2. Don’t establish pre-set limits (see above). Open your mind to the idea that the limits you and your team accept as real may in fact be imagined.
  3. Research areas where possibilities may exist—this is like obtaining a treasure map and perusing it carefully.
  4. Take action—follow the map and start digging for the gems of possibilities around you.
  5. Enlist help—get others researching, digging, and sharing ideas.

3. Explore Ways to Innovate

Here are some ways you can innovate as an executive:

  • A black-and-white photo of Thomas Edison and one of his most innovative inventions, the phonograph

    Thomas Edison with a phonograph, one of his many other inventions.

    Survey customers and clients to see what they’re looking for.

  • Observe how customers use your products/services and see how you can better adapt your offerings to their real-world applications.
  • Observe what others are already doing and adapt those ideas to your own unique situation. Many Japanese businesses have done this successfully for years, most notably in the electronics and auto industries.
  • Explore ways to expand and build on what your company is already doing.
  • Experiment—trial and error will ultimately lead to something that works. Not trying anything for fear of failure leads to… nothing. Allegedly, when asked how he felt about “wasted effort” when trying to invent the lightbulb, Thomas Edison replied, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” But through this, he found the way that did, and his invention is now used by billions of people every day.
  • Collaborate with complementary companies to come up with new ideas and synergies.
  • Collaborate with staff within your company—anyone at any level can contribute an idea.
  • Use the web to investigate trends and invite suggestions. Social media, forums, and tools like Google Trends can all be valuable sources of info on evolving consumer demands.

4. Challenge Pre-Existing Paradigms

Before you can create innovation, you have to first decide to not “do business as usual.” You can’t be content with the status quo. Complacency kills innovation. For every paradigm, you need to ask:

  • How is this working?
  • How can this be improved?
  • What hasn’t been working?
  • What needs to be eliminated?
  • What are we lacking here?
  • How can we change it without ruining it?
  • Who can help with any necessary changes?

5. Allow Yourself and Others Permission to Explore

Black-and-white Henry Ford portrait from 1919

Henry Ford in 1919.

As mentioned earlier, fear of failure paralyzes innovation before it even starts—because it means you never start! Every inventor has left a trail of trials and errors before creating products that have changed our lives for the better. Henry Ford believed in exploration so much that he said, “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.”

Be fearless not only about your own potential failures, but those of others as well. If your staff and employees feel they dare not suggest anything new, let alone try it, it stifles innovation. But if they see that you’re not afraid to explore—or let them explore—then innovation will flourish.

6. Tap into Existing Creativity or Draw It Out from Others

Henry Ford also said, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t—you’re right.” Believing in yourself and others goes a long way toward making innovation happen. Usually, people think of “creativity” as something artistic, but creativity can also apply to business. Any time you do something in a new and imaginative way, you’re exercising creativity. So, how can you tap into the creativity inside you and your team?

  1. Relax. When you’re anxious and tense, adrenaline is released, causing all your energy to go toward survival and making concentration or creative thinking impossible.
  2. Brainstorm, and write down every idea that comes to mind. To draw out creativity from the other members of your team, brainstorm as individuals and not a group. Group brainstorming consistently generates fewer unique ideas than individuals working alone.
  3. Gather everyone’s ideas and organize them into categories.
  4. Again as individuals, expand on each idea that seems like it can “go somewhere”—let it generate related ideas.
  5. As a group, consider and discuss how these ideas and their “offspring” might be implemented.

7. Create an Environment That Supports Creativity and Innovation

Creating innovation involves establishing a culture where people feel safe to share, discuss, and act on new ideas. It creates space for problem solving, discovery, and big dreams from multiple sources. It’s a culture where continuous improvement happens.

Woody Allen in 2015

Woody Allen in 2015. Photo by Adam Bielawski [CC BY-SA].

It also requires taking risks. To quote Woody Allen, “If you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative.” Creating innovation requires significant creativity and calculated risk taking.

If your organization lacks this kind of environment, you’ll be handicapped in your ability to achieve transformational results. But when you create a culture that celebrates creativity and unique perspectives, you’ll find that innovation is not far behind.

Cultures like this tend to get better results in shorter periods of time. Because everyone feels free to challenge the status quo, they are able to contribute creative solutions that improve workflows, efficiency and productivity, among other benefits.

Why Does Creating Innovation Matter?

By approaching needs and problems in creative ways, you will uncover blind spots and misbeliefs, and develop better solutions. Asking questions that challenge the “we’ve always done it this way” mentality will enable your team to push forward while others stall. It also opens the door for more diverse perspectives from a wider audience.

How to Develop This Strength

This process requires you to take certain risks, including challenging existing conditions and encouraging others to do likewise. At the same time, you need to keep the right balance between trying new things and doing what already works. It’s still necessary to follow standard operating procedure to ensure consistent performance and deliver quality work. Great executives have an instinctive ability to know the right amount of innovation to encourage, and when.

As you develop your strengths in this area, you can increase how frequently you and your team take calculated risks, resulting in greater success. This virtuous cycle provides positive reinforcement for a culture of creativity and innovation. This is a never-ending process of continuous improvement, and it all starts by taking risks and thinking outside the box.

Other ways to improve at creating innovation include:

  1. Reading good books on the subject, such as Innovation by Design by Thomas Lockwood and Edgar Papke and Design Thinking for Strategic Innovation by Idris Mootee.
  2. Researching articles dealing with areas of this competency, especially areas of challenge.SOLID Execution competency highlighted in wheel diagram
  3. Enlisting a coach to help you envision, strategize, and stay accountable as you develop your innovation skills and practices.

If you are a bona fide CEO or senior executive, I would be happy to coach you in creating innovation or any other area where you would like to improve. Click the button below to schedule the first of several complimentary coaching sessions:

Complimentary Executive Coaching

About This Competency

Creating Innovation is one of SOLID’s 50 competencies critical to executive success. It falls under the category of Execution, one of 5 categories within the competency model, which is explained and downloadable at the end of this article. Overall, executives are responsible for, and must be competent in:

E1. CREATING INNOVATION: Thinking more outside the box; discovering more possibilities; exploring ways to innovate; challenging pre-existing paradigms; allowing themselves and others permission to explore; tapping into existing creativity or drawing it out from others; creating an environment that supports creativity and innovation.

About Our Competency Model

SOLID Executive Competencies ebook coverThe SOLID Competency Model is based on two decades of research. It is founded on the premise that all executive competencies can be categorized into these five groupings: Core Character, Execution, Relationship, Management and Leadership. Executives must master all five categories to achieve excellence in their roles. This model is useful for gauging and quantifying your skillset, understanding what it takes to be an effective executive, and providing a framework for improving performance. For more information, download “SOLID Executive Competencies: What It Takes to Be an Executive.”

Eliminate Executive Blind Spots ebookLooking constructively at yourself isn’t easy, but doing so provides the catalyst for transformational change. Having a balanced, objective look at your skillset and a willingness to be self-critical for the sake of continuous improvement are major markers of a top executive. Take the next step and download “Eliminate Executive Blind Spots” to explore your strengths and weaknesses and remove any blind spots you may have.

About the Author

Daniel Joseph Mueller of Austin, Texas, President & CEO of SOLIDleadersDaniel Joseph Mueller has provided one-on-one executive coaching for over 1,400 senior executives. Through three decades of unprecedented change, he has helped business leaders create innovation and take their organizations to the next level.

Daniel currently serves as the President & CEO of SOLIDleaders, LLC, and lives in Austin, TX. You can learn more in Daniel Mueller’s bio.