In the last chapter excerpt of The Innovation Formula we looked at the role of the business leader, including key strategies to communicate the purpose of innovation as well as taking on the responsibility for the learning of the entire organization as it pertains to innovation. Today, we’ll look at the specific abilities required to organize and inspire innovation practices in your company.


As a learner and an innovator, you’re naturally a person who’s curious to discover new things, and you exemplify the personality characteristics that embody learning. You’re always interested in surprises, because surprises indicate that something that you used to believe is perhaps not so, and such a discovery can be enormously helpful to the cause of innovation, as we seek to overturn facts that are actually not facts at all, but were merely mistaken assumptions.

Oh, how wonderful it is to get rid of an assumption that is discovered to be untrue, and replace with a better explanation of reality, for in this lies the very genius of innovation, the genius that spots something that everyone else overlooked, or misunderstood, the genius that becomes new insight, new possibility, and new reality!

And you’re always interested in understanding what has caused past successes and especially past failures, for while the successes showed how and where your reasoning and expectations were justified, your failures are, like surprises, learning opportunities to confront mistaken assumptions that deserve to be overturned, and the overturning of which will open up new possibilities, new doorways to innovation.

You will seek to discover whatever it is that can be learned from less than perfect results, because all of these occurrences – surprises, successes, failures, and disappointments – provide significant learning opportunities for you and for the organization.

Another word to use to describe the cognitive impact of surprises and of overturned assumptions is … unlearning. Yes, that’s right, unlearning is the process of having discovered that what we thought we knew just isn’t so, and we have to start afresh. How close to innovation is that? Same exact thing, don’t you think…

As a leader, it’s not your job to be the most creative person in the organization, nor to be the most innovative person in the organization.

As a leader, it’s not your job to be the most creative person in the organization, nor to be the most innovative person in the organization. Your job is to structure and organize the entire process, to support, guide, manage, and coach others, and to assure that rigorous discipline is being followed throughout the innovation process, and to measure the results and correct the system such that all this widespread effort leads to the desired sort of innovation results, which in turn leads to success and sustainability for the organization.

Your own curiosity will lead you into the many corners and hidden places where learning may occur across the scope of the organization’s performance, not only with respect to new products and services, but also throughout the ongoing and existing operations.

As you’re probably taking the lead in determining which projects to invest in and which not to invest in, you must be seen as a fair person, open minded and willing to consider many different possibilities, willing to discuss openly with others about the projects and the ideas that they’re working on, both to help them improve their ideas, and also to help them recognize ideas that simply may not be ready.

Through all of these activities you will, most importantly, incite learning, genuine learning, to occur, both for yourself, and for a great many other people who are engaged in various ways in the innovation journey with you.

One of the most direct and yet effective methods you may apply to get people engaged in learning is to ask them questions, not only when you suspect that they know the answers, but because questions themselves open doors, and can quite readily lead people to discover new and unexpected knowledge that will also carry them forward in their own quests for information and solutions.

The Question-asker

In Chapter 1 we mentioned two of the key drivers of innovation, maps and questions. As an innovation leader you should be in the habit of asking questions, as it is a form of interaction that can provoke profound learning. You’ll ask questions of your colleagues throughout the management team, and of people throughout the entire organization, and far beyond.

But what can a question really do? And why are questions so important?

We have found with amazing consistency that the right question, asked in the right way (i.e., helpfully, as opposed to a “gotcha” question), and asked at the right time, can abruptly open a door in a person’s mind, enabling them to see things differently, to see things that they had never seen or understood before. Questions are tremendously powerful instigators of innovative thought, and the capacity to frame and ask great questions is one of the most important skills that leaders can develop.

The capacity to frame and ask great questions is one of the most important skills that leaders can develop.

Enabling a person to have this sort of experience may help to change their perspective just enough to illuminate a difficult problem, or lead to an insight that unlocks a mystery.

Here are some examples

The Polaroid camera was invented by chemist Edwin Land, and he was inspired to make that invention by a simple question. The story goes something like this (I am paraphrasing). Land enjoyed photography as a hobby, so of course he took lots of pictures of his family. He had a young daughter, and one day he asked his daughter if she would pose for him. The 7-year-old posed glamorously, like movie star, and after he had taken the picture she ran over to him and practically shouted at him, “Daddy, Daddy! Show me the picture!” And he replied, “Of course, dear. We’ll just go in the house and we’ll develop the film, and then we’ll print the film, and then you’ll be able to see the picture.” This, obviously, was going to take a long time, which was not at all satisfying to her. “No, Daddy. I have to see the picture now! Why can’t I see it now?!” Now, as in right now, this minute!

Of course Land didn’t have the knowledge to make the picture visible immediately, but her question inspired him to think about why they couldn’t see it now, and what would be necessary for photography to be, in the phrase that was chosen later, instant. And so her simple question led him on the journey that eventually resulted in the Polaroid camera, the instant camera that we know and love today.

Speaking of the questions that children ask, and the role that plays in their learning, why do you suppose that we have a widely shared belief that smaller class sizes are more effective learning environments for children than larger classes? Aside from the general level of noise and chaos of a big classroom filled with 30 or more active, young minds, we know that smaller classes are better because each child in a smaller class has more opportunities to interact directly with the teacher, more chances, that is, to ask questions. Because asking questions is fundamental to learning.

The story of Land and the Polaroid camera is also important because it describes a pattern that occurs repeatedly, the power of the right question to lead in a fruitful direction. This occurs because a question itself may change how someone looks at a problem, that is, the topic of the question moves from the domain of “We know that already,” i.e., applying an existing solution that has already been mapped to current reality, to the domain of “What if …?” and “Suppose that …,” and these are domains in which visionaries and innovators, and leaders spend a great deal of their time.

In fact, great leaders and visionaries of history have always recognized and utilized the power of questions to further their goals. The history of innovation is the history of questions, because great questions embody and also may provoke insight into every aspect of knowledge, from physics to psychology, from to biology to business. Access to all realms of knowledge is unlocked by asking the right questions.

So when you read about great leaders, scientists, or statesmen, consider what questions they may have been asking, and what answers they may have gotten from their questions. And then imagine what they then did with the answers that they got, how they transformed questions and answers into insight and action that altered the course of history. Questions can indeed do that.

Leonardo da Vinci, for example, was known for his relentless curiosity. He asked questions of things that he observed in nature, and that he saw in the human world around him, and this inspired him to design visionary machines and also to become one of the greatest painters in history, all because of his curiosity, which was at root his simple habit of asking questions, and seeking the answers in his sketchbooks and inventions.

A more contemporary example is Lou Gerstner, the former CEO of IBM, who was hired specifically to extract IBM from the greatest crisis in its history. At the time, 1991, IBM was losing money by the billions, and there was an active debate among the company’s leaders, board members, and many outside observers about whether it would be best to break the company up into pieces, or whether it would be possible to somehow recreate it for a new life.

In approaching his assignment Gerstner therefore asked himself, “What is the right thing to do with the asset called IBM?” Through a systematic process of investigation he realized that IBM needed a new business model, and then set about to design it. The results he achieved, of course, were outstanding, and today, twenty years later, IBM remains one of the most successful and important American corporations.

Einstein also asked a lot questions. One of them, simple enough, was: What would it be like to ride on a wave of light as it moves through the universe? That question inspired him to see reality in a way that was different than how others saw it, and led him to formulate the framework in a way that we know today as the special and general theories of relatively.

Napoleon, one of the greatest military leaders of all time, also asked questions. His simple question was “What can I do to overwhelm my opponent?” His answers led him to reinvent how wars were fought, and to dozens of victories over much larger armies led by much less innovative opponents.

Edwin Land, Leonardo, Gerstner, Einstein, Napoleon. And you. Here are two questions that you, the leader/entrepreneur/innovator, might ask.

  • What are the right questions that will provide the necessary leadership for this organization?
  • What is the most powerful or compelling question that will lead us to or toward where we want to be in the marketplace?

As I mentioned, your job is not necessarily to know the answers, but to identify the right questions, and then to seek answers to them rigorously, to discover robust insights with discipline, within a system, within a framework for the innovation process.

You might also ask:

  • What is the future of our industry?
  • And what is the future of our company?
  • What’s driving change in our world?
  • What are the forces and factors that are shaping the future of the markets in which we compete?
  • And what should our place be in those future markets?

You may also want to know:

  • What is the right mix of products, services, business models, and new innovation ventures to assure the success of our organization in the future?
  • And what are the right innovation targets for our organization to pursue?
  • In the process of asking these questions you’ll be shaping your thoughts about your organization’s innovation portfolio.
  • You may ask about customers and what they need and want, and what they may require of your organization today, and what they will in the future.
  • And how will we meet these requirements?
  • What is our process is going to be for developing ideas and translating those ideas into innovative products and services that we offer in the marketplace?

You will also be asking questions to help you to think about how to inspire everyone in the organization, and in fact, everyone outside of the organization who are part of your organizational ecosystem as well.

  • How can we engage the broadest group to contribute their best ideas and questions to our innovation process?
  • What types of research should we be doing?
  • How can we turn our research into valuable products and services?
  • What are the new technologies that will become part of our future products and services?
  • What technology development capabilities do we need that we don’t have today?

And you will ask about the best ways to support all of these efforts.

  • What is the best support structure for innovation throughout our organization?
  • What tools do we need?
  • What software and hardware might enable us to work more effectively?

To summarize, then, questions are tremendously powerful instigators of innovative thought, and the capacity to frame and ask great questions is one of the most important skills that the leader can develop. And as you ask these questions, and the dozens and hundreds of others that will emerge through time, you’ll discover that improvement to the quality and effectiveness of the questions you ask will occur naturally, because conceiving of great questions is a skill that improves as a result of your dedicated practice.

The root cause analyst

In the business methodology known as TQM, or Total Quality, the principle of asking questions is embedded in a tool called simply, “5 Whys,” which is applied in situations when an issue or problem has arisen, and the individual or team in charge of solving it begins to address the situation. The context of this scenario is generally some sort of a failure, such a machine breakdown on an assembly line, which is one of the domains – the manufacturing environment – where Total Quality has proven itself to be so amazingly effective.

The underlying goal in a Total Quality context is not only to address the immediate problem, but to search for, diagnose, and address the root cause as well, and hence the “5 Whys” is also know as Root Cause Analysis.

The technique suggests that when looking at a problem, one would ask why it has occurred, which might lead deeper into the issue to identify an underlying problem. Ask “why” again, to get still deeper. The inference in Root Cause Analysis is that by the time you have asked the fifth why, you’ve probably arrived at or close to a real root cause, and if you then address the root cause, all of the other resulting layers of problems will resolve themselves and not recur.

The inverse logic, of course, is that if you just fix the obvious manifestation of the problem, but do not address the underlying cause or causes, then the problem will likely recur, which will multiply cost and further problems in the future.

Root cause analysis, pursued with rigor, has enabled companies such as Toyota, Honda, and Samsung to become world leaders in designing and manufacturing products of amazing quality and durability. A 2012 Honda car, for example, could well be expected to last for 300,000 miles of good service to its owner as long as it’s properly maintained, whereas twenty years ago, a good car was one that made it to 100,000 miles.

The point of this, of course, is that Root Cause Analysis is really just a persistent habit of asking thoughtful and pertinent questions, and your job as a leader is largely to become, therefore, the Chief Question-Asker of your organization, or perhaps you might say the Chief of Curiosity.

And if your company happens to have an executive in charge of total quality, this person will likely become a close supporter and ally of yours, which have the additional benefit of linking the innovation effort with the quality process, the two being, of course, really two sides of a single coin.

The act and spirit of asking questions can provide important leadership, which may help people throughout your organization to better understand the future, and to understand the vision that the organization is aspiring to achieve. Questions can also inspire people to seek new knowledge, to seek new insights and new possibilities. Questions can inspire people to learn, and can organize the search and research processes.

It’s important that questions are used as positive inducements, not negative put-downs.

However, as I noted above, questions can also be used as a gotcha, as a way to demonstrate the superior knowledge and intelligence of the person asking the question. And this, of course, is not at all what we mean by the spirit of asking questions, for these questions are destructive and detrimental. They will not inspire the innovation culture, but rather they will stifle it. It’s important, therefore, that questions are used as positive inducements, not negative put-downs.

The manager

So here we are back where you probably started, at management. You’ve managed your company successfully to get to your current level of success, and now you’re considering how to make a renewed effort, to develop a new set of management skills that will lead the innovation, with the goal to transformation your firm into one that is more broadly protected from external changes, and perhaps a more prominent player in current and future markets.

Your skills in management will be applied as you develop the whole system of innovation in your organization, and at the same time you’ll also be putting efforts into the specific innovation projects, balancing the whole system with the high potential targets that you’re pursing.

In this role you’ll balance other factors including short term and long-term perspectives, as well as risk and reward, and the differing thinking processes related to incremental thinking and breakthrough thinking.

And you’ll be managing the overall innovation budget and budgets specific to individual projects, as well as the performance of the overall innovation portfolio. As you see, there will be abundant opportunities to exercise your managerial savoir-faire.

The facilitator

As an innovation leader you may also find that you are spending quite a bit of time as a facilitator, and as we saw in the prior chapter, in this role your job is to help individuals and teams find the best solutions to the complex problems that they’re engaged with.

The coach

Another important role for you is as a coach. Here you’ll both push and pull. By pushing I mean that there are times when a coach has to expect great things, and has to demand that individuals and teams raise the level of their performance to meet those expectations.

There are other times, however, when pushing probably isn’t going to be helpful, when the right thing to do is to patiently encourage and inspire people to search for great questions and great solutions to very difficult issues and challenges that they’re grappling with.

The qualities and knowledge that contribute to the success of a coach, whether you’re coaching a team of very young children, or high school athletes, or elite professionals, are the same.

First and most important is empathy, the capacity to understand what others are feeling and thinking and to engage them with the right response that helps them to transcend their limitations. This is the same skill that, when turned toward customers, enables you to recognize needs and opportunities in the marketplace. Directly internally, this ability to listen effectively, and to set aside one’s own judgment in order to understand what’s going on in the mind of the other person is a particularly important skill because so much of the innovation process is driven by the need to understand exactly what others are thinking and feeling, whether “they” are colleagues among the executive team, your own innovation team members, innovation project participants, or customers, partners, and even competitors.

High empathy skill will also enable you to find the best ways of communicating, also a key leadership skill.

Effective leaders balance a capacity for high empathy with a forward-looking vision of what ought to be and the drive to achieve the vision. Merging these three, empathy, vision, and drive enables you to communicate with people effectively, in ways that will indeed inspire and motivate them to effective action, and through this process they will be more likely to and more capable of helping you to achieve your vision, while also making progress in achieving their own visions. (Their visions may be as important to them, as yours are to you.)

You’re likely to be the person who defines the vision for the organization as a whole, and it’s also certainly your responsibility to articulate the vision for the innovation process, and for everyone who’s engaged in working on innovation throughout the organization. Likewise, it’s definitely your job to get as many people as possible engaged in the work of attaining that vision, and your coaching skills will help significantly in doing so.

Enthusiasm is important, as well, as a good coach both embodies and conveys a positive attitude and enthusiasm for the work and accomplishments achieved throughout the organization.

A prospective athlete, someone in training who is learning to be a high performing team member and who has the capacity to achieve such a goal, is likely to have moments of great accomplishment, personal triumphs and breakthroughs in understanding, capability, and performance. But there will also be times where nothing seems to be working at all. A major part of the coach’s job is to reinforce the long term vision, to help overcome the bad days, to help the aspiring performer see the progress, and to know that there are inevitably better days and worse days on the long journey toward success.

Coaches work to bring out the best in each of the players on the team, and prepares each one to succeed by helping them prepare for and accomplish everything that’s necessary to overcome the obstacles and challenges along the way.

Hence, the coach’s job is to create a learning atmosphere in which people understand the significance of the goals that they’re pursuing, and where each is clear about their own goals, and in which they understand what is required to remain on a path toward success.

Each athlete, and each innovator, each member of the team will have their own experiences; each will bring a unique level of skill and their own degree of commitment to the sport, and each will have unique physical and mental attributes; some will be taller, some will be faster, some will be stronger. It is the coach’s job to blend all of the different individuals and bring forth their best efforts in molding a successful team.

The designer

Another important skill for the innovation leader is the capacity to design. The process of design is a matter of searching for elegant solutions to complex problems, by mastering the principles and practices of transforming observations and insights into useful concepts and objects. Does that definition sound rather similar to the definition of innovation? Of course it does; it is in fact the same thing.

As a matter of culture we use the word “design” to describe what architects do, and what business leaders do when addressing complex problems, seeking (and creating) elegant solutions to intricate and engaging challenges. We design organizations and business models, advertisements and packages, houses and cars and kitchen sinks.

The discipline of design is the process of thinking through options and possibilities, arriving at the best solution, and making it real. Just like innovation. It is an essential skill for leaders.

The open door

If you have the good fortune to be an open and generally optimistic person these qualities will contribute a great deal to your success.

You’ll be highly visible throughout the organization, and you will want people to feel comfortable approaching you to share their ideas, asking for help in nudging the bureaucracy, or just seeking guidance. You welcome these conversations, and they’re a constant activity for you, because so much of what you want and need to accomplish is not a matter of what you can do on your own, but rather a result of what others will contribute through their own participation in the innovation dialog and the innovation process.

Therefore, this part of your job is a networking job, and the larger and more effectively you’re connected to people throughout your organization and beyond, the easier it will for you to gather the talent and engage the commitments that you need.

Your network of contacts will help you to assess the many ideas that arrive into the innovation domain, and to understand the many problems that will beset the innovation projects that are under way, and of course to help solve them, too.

So it will be very useful if you’re available and happy to talk to anyone nearly any time. And it will help if people – especially people you don’t already know – are aware of your openness, know how to find you, and feel comfortable reaching out to you.

Perhaps you should be located close to the middle of the busiest crossroads of the organization…

In this regard, by the way, where is your office?

Is it hidden away in some inaccessible corner far out of sight? Or it is on the executives’ floor, locked away in the quiet leadership spaces where few others venture to go. You wish to be accessible to people, so these are probably not the best locations for you. Instead, perhaps you should be located close to the middle of the busiest crossroads of the organization, in a spot where people will be passing by, and where, on the spur of the moment, they can stick their head in your office – which they know that they’re welcome to do – and say, “By the way, you know that innovation do-dad we were talking about last week? Well I had a call with so-and-so over at such-and-such, and she said that they’d seen a problem like that last year …” These are the conversations that do much to move innovation forward.

Where is that crossroads? Chances are, it may have something to do with coffee. Yes, if it happens that you’re known for the very good coffee that happens to be right near the door of your office, well, that’s just how it works out sometimes …

To make this work, one leader we admired kept two offices. One was his obligatory space with the other executives, where he could interact easily with the team; the other was in a very obvious, front and center spot in the innovation team space, which he had chosen precisely because sooner or later just about everyone in the organization would happen by.

Your self-assessment

Did you get all that? It’s taken a lot to describe the qualities, skills, and characteristics that you may need to develop to become a successful innovation leader, to achieve world-class capability in this highly complex domain. It’s a lot.

You should expect that your capabilities are stronger in some of these than others, so you need a development plan, which will inevitably begin with an honest assessment of your own strengths and weaknesses, your own capabilities, so that you will know very clearly areas in which you need extra support or help. A detailed and honest self-assessment will also tell you a great deal about your style of leadership and of communication, and will thus help you to structure highly effective interactions with others so that you achieve successful outcomes. Your personal action plan is your designed pathway to augment the areas where your skill level is insufficient.

Skills and personality assessment

Here’s the list of skills we’ve just discussed. In the accompanying workbook there are some sheets you can use to develop a more refined self-assessment.

  1. Leader
  2. Learner
  3. Curiosity
  4. Question asker
  5. Manager
  6. Facilitator
  7. Coach
  8. Designer
  9. The Open Door

Take time not only to answer the self assessment questions, and also to think deeply about what you learn from it. Where are you strongest? Weakest? What are the priority actions that you should engage in to improve in the weak areas?

Taking action

This is a chapter on leadership, so it’s fairly obvious that you need to make a careful and honest assessment of your own leadership style. What’s working?

What’s not working? Then move on to the other items for your more complete self- assessment. Set aside some focused, quiet time to think about your own strengths and weaknesses, and then decide on a couple that you feel are critical to the future success of your organization, and put together a study plan to learn how your desire for personal change can become a reality.

It may be very helpful to discuss these issues with your peers, other business leaders who have their own companies to run, and who are facing the same or similar challenges. Peer coaching like this can be very useful.

By Langdon Morris

About the author:

Since 2001, Langdon Morris has led the innovation consulting practice of InnovationLabs LLC, where he is a senior partner and co-founder. He is also a partner of FutureLab Consulting. He is recognized as one the world’s leading thinkers and consultants on innovation, and his original and ground-breaking work has been adopted by corporations and universities on every continent to help them improve their innovation processes and the results they achieve. His recent works Agile Innovation, The Innovation Master Plan and Permanent Innovation are recognized as three of the leading innovation books of the last 5 years.

Image: Difference thinking concept from