Where do you start when you want something new? Whether the aim is just an improvement, a small incremental change or something more unique, disruptive and breakthrough, the start will probably determine where you end up. Do you start jotting down ideas? Do you grab a whiteboard and Post-Its, get a few people in the room, and start brainstorming?

Even though in itself these are good things to do, we would suggest innovation leadership means you make an upfront investment in a different activity first. There is a risk in trying to solve the problem right away. Beware to not get sucked into the action trap miss out on an essential part that will increase your payback.

At THNK, we guide hundreds of creative leaders on their path to innovation leadership. One key learning is that jumping with both feet into ideas without first exploring fresh angles into your innovation topic is like cooking a curry without fresh peppers. The ideas will be bland. Too often they will not constitute a breakthrough. True innovation leadership means approaching the topic from a new perspective. Creative leaders take a few steps back and do a rigorous exploration of the problem, as if they are an explorer and set foot on new land for the first time. We call this activity Sensing and it aims to identify fresh and spicy insights that can spark breakthrough ideas later on. However, this Sensing phase is anything but easy.

The expedition

Imagine for a second that it’s 1804 and you are President Thomas Jefferson of the United States. You just doubled your nation’s size by purchasing the largely unknown lands called Louisiana territory. This big unexplored piece of land belonged to France, but Napoleon sold it to you. Only a few trappers have traveled there, and no accurate maps exist. Being the first to find a route through this territory to the unclaimed land on the Pacific, west of Louisiana, could establish a claim to even more territory. You have the potential to become a coast-to-coast nation. What do you do? 

You commission an expedition to explore this vast uncharted territory: the Lewis and Clark expedition. You commission them to spend significant time to discover the lay of the land, the flows of the rivers, the habits of its native people and map the territory and gather scientific data on animals and plants. You give them enough resources to last from May 1804 to September 1806 to try and find a way to get to the Pacific.


Even though the expedition had a sense of direction (westbound) and a goal (establish legal presence on the west coast before the Europeans could lay a claim), the explorers did not know what they would encounter, nor where the journey would lead them. They produced the first accurate maps of the area, recorded more than 200 new species of local plants and animals, and  observed and recorded the whereabouts, activities and cultures of 72 distinct Native American tribes that inhabited the territory. Lewis and Clark applied the discipline required to explore uncharted terrain, and it yielded valuable treasures and knowledge that led to breakthroughs. Such as discovering a pass to cross the Rocky Mountains (Bozeman Pass), that allowed them to claim the Pacific region and later was chosen as the optimal route for the Northern Pacific Railway to cross the continental divide.

When launching on a quest for breakthrough ideas, innovation leadership feels quite similar to exploring uncharted territory. Like Lewis and Clarke you may have a sense of direction and an overall goal yet you are making the journey to discover what you do not know yet. By definition this makes it hard: you are looking for something you do not know. This is why its success greatly depends on the diligence and discipline of the expedition.

During Sensing, innovation leadership means exploring and collecting unexpected treasures that will help you look at the problem from a new, original angle. Better and different ideas will eventually be the result. Sensing is not efficient. It is not a straight path of solution finding. Instead it is an often-frustrating search along several paths looking for something without the advance knowledge of what exactly you might be looking for. In short: the pursuit of serendipity. Serendipity is quite beautifully defined as looking for a needle in a haystack and finding the farmer’s daughter.

This pursuit of serendipity is a disciplined process. The word discipline is not used lightly here. We have learned from guiding creative leaders in their Sensing activities that it takes discipline to:

  • Commit sufficient time and resources
  • Apply different lenses if you want to find new treasures
  • Postpone judgment and stay away from forming initial ideas if you want to learn something new
  • Capture the treasures you collect on the way diligently.

 Commit sufficient time and resources

Lewis spent weeks in Jefferson’s library studying fur traders’ diaries and inaccurate maps. It took 18 months to explore the new terrain – once over – and 18 more during the return trip. The U.S. mint prepared special silver medals with a portrait of Jefferson and inscribed with a message of friendship and peace. The expedition was prepared with sufficient black powder and lead for their flintlock firearms, knives, blacksmithing supplies, and cartography equipment.

Innovation leadership means understanding that it’s not that the first answers are bad, it’s that they are incremental.

Of course innovation leadership today means facing very different challenges. Yet how much time and resources do we devote before we start to come up with answers? It is so tempting to jump right in when given a problem. You think you see the answer already. Innovation leadership means understanding that it’s not that the first answers are bad, it’s that they are incremental. They build on what you already know about the topic and this takes time and resources. Of course there are always so many competing commitments that it might feel counterintuitive to carve out time for Sensing in your calendar. People rarely do this for themselves, which is where innovation leadership comes in, through forcing teams to do Sensing and allocating sufficient resources and budget to do so. It takes time to win the trust of the users you are observing and interviewing, to study the facts and the figures, and to sift through material and dig up the few nuggets of gold.

As true innovation leadership becomes more important to you, you will likely create rituals as your own Sensing activities. For instance, using travel time for Sensing activities or blocking parts of your day as Sensing time –like Ben van Berkel, the renowned Dutch architect, does three hours of every day to force himself to stay in touch with that which will produce his next breakthrough.

Look through different lenses

When Sensing, you are looking to develop a fresh perspective and identify weak signals. Innovation leadership means wanting to discover as many different insights as possible. This requires using different instruments and different lenses. The microscope to zoom in on the details, get an up close and personal view of your user: what does she do, say, think and feel? The telescope to zoom out on the full context of the problem, who else is involved, what are the force fields in the ecosystem, what has been done in the past, what are the facts? 

President Jefferson wanted Lewis and Clark to look through various scientific lenses, including anthropology and mineralogy (zooming in) and meteorology and astronomy (zooming out).

For instance, when designing a new concept for a restaurant, one can explore dining habits, such as the disappearing ritual of the family discussion over dinner. Or one can explore different cooking styles and recipes. One can delve into different consumer segments, different types of potential restaurant visitors, and with different unmet meets. One can explore the topic as “the place to be”, thus exploring different designs, types of people to be surrounded by, and different brand images. One can look at the topic from a business angle, looking at the profitability of different formats. One can take an engineer’s perspective looking for new ways to get to maximum throughput. One can take the perspective of a real estate planner, looking for new concepts that various locations might trigger. Or one can take a technology angle using new techniques to prepare food or select food ingredients that are produced in advanced way. 

Curiosity fuels this phase of innovation leadership. Asking questions and listening are the power tools used for Sensing. Truly listening without judging is not an easy task. It helps to force yourself to listen for what you do not want to hear. For instance, innovation leadership would mean that if a team is excited about a new opportunity space it might be tempted to close its ears to those saying “we tried that already in the past and it failed”. However, if you force yourself to listen, you have an interesting sensing opportunity to delve into past experience and draw learning from it. Innovation leadership may mean coaxing your teams to go sense when they are moving away.

Innovation leadership also means listening to dispassionate outsiders and looking at the hard facts.

Innovation leadership also means listening to dispassionate outsiders and looking at the hard facts. This part of Sensing will help objectify your perspective. Trend analysis in consumer or business research is difficult with typically high data variance. The tendency is to draw straight lines through messy data instead of trying to find more insightful dynamics by attempting to understand the patterns underlying the data. Similarly the tendency is to focus on the data that conforms to the hypothesis instead of looking in detail into the so-called “outliers”.

Sensing is also about feeling with the “heart and with the gut” and having the courage to articulate what one senses without it being clearly seen. Feeling with the heart and gut requires emotionally connecting with the topic of exploration. For instance, sensing the opportunities for innovation in education becomes much richer when one has a child at school oneself. Innovation leadership means encouraging others to find the courage to articulate what they sense with the gut, because it always risks finding oneself in a minority position. In some cases, people might have even chosen to avoid dealing with a looming big issue (“the elephant in the room”) and as a result are not open to even explore it. For instance, the next generation will reach an age above a hundred years and this should require totally new pension structures. 

Postpone judgment or cherish the not knowing

During Sensing, you don’t know what you are looking for until you have found it, so look through the eyes of a child and have the patience of a monk. Only when you release your agenda and remain completely open to all possibilities, will you be truly receptive to new learning. This is exceptionally hard to do for people who work in result-oriented, time-pressured environments. Yet innovation leadership means knowing that the moment you believe you know the answer or form a judgment, you will be obstructing the view of the unexpected, and risk missing out on serendipitous encounters. Hence the discipline required going in search of serendipity.

Sacagawea, a Shoshone woman who acted as interpreter and guide, accompanied Lewis and Clark for part of their journey. Soon after first meeting her, she gave birth and then became very sick. Rather than deciding she was too weak and leave her behind, the expedition helped and healed her. A few weeks later, when the expedition were in a rough patch, they encountered a Shoshone chief who was willing to help, he traded for horses and guided them across the cold and barren Rocky Mountains to the other side. The chief happened to be her brother… 

During Sensing, you don’t know what you are looking for until you have found it, so look through the eyes of a child and have the patience of a monk.

For innovation leadership to find what you are not looking for, it must start by asking truly open questions, versus closed ones. This removes the judgment and the preconceived notions from your mind and helps you listen for new insights. Empathy is at the core of the Sensing phase. When the questions are asked in a caring way, they will help win you the trust of the interviewee and possibly reveal pain points that can lead to crucial insights. In 2009, the Netherlands carried out a mass citizen survey to find out the impact of the financial crisis on people’s life. The first question asked to rate the most serious crisis the country was currently facing. Surprisingly, the most frequent answer was, “a crisis in values in terms of how we act towards each other”.

Collect the treasures

When sensing with an open mind, you will encounter many new findings and learn a lot. A rich Sensing harvest will have a lot of chaff, and some wheat – the treasures you will be hoping to find. Diligently recording and documenting your findings will help you construct a complete picture of the topic.

Innovation leadership requires building a Sensing cockpit, a large “canvas” to collect all the images and quotes and data you encounter. When doing a field trip, besides notes, take many pictures; when interviewing users, besides quotes, snap their portrait; when reading a report, cut out the pie chart with a startling insight. Visual representations of your findings will help you remember the actual insights much better than written words. Continue to add to this canvas with every new Sensing activity. Cluster and re-order the clippings until meaningful patterns start to emerge and key insights reveal themselves.

Sensing is exploring uncharted territory

Lewis and Clark diligently recorded their treasures in 14 journals. The journals contain huge volumes of data, going beyond geographical notes and records of temperature and weather. Both men made meticulous observations on the geology and biology of the region and behaviors of the native people and enlivened their journals with images of animals and plants, Indian artifacts, canoes, and costumes. 

When working on the question of how to make Amsterdam a more attractive and sustainable destination, one of the teams at THNK went out and took photos of the route from Schiphol airport to their hotel. The resulting overview of the derelict buildings, dirty train platforms, graffiti-dominated transit cars, incomprehensible signage and overcrowded cars made the key insight instantly and abundantly clear. The difference between the sophisticated environments of the terminal and hotel lobby compared to the trip in between these points was enormous.

Innovation leadership needs discipline

Committing to Sensing before starting generating ideas is counter-intuitive for many, especially for natural ‘converters’ who want to get to the answer right away. However, when the aim is innovation, innovation leadership knows that it requires time and discipline to ‘diverge’ and explore. This is certainly very different from just wandering around like Alice in Wonderland. By applying the right tools, mindset and process to Sensing, it becomes a disciplined and rigorous set of activities.

We would argue President Jefferson exhibited true innovation leadership by making the upfront investment of commissioning the Lewis and Clark expedition to sense their way through the newly acquired opportunity, before painting any vision what to do with the new country. You could find worse examples to follow. We invite you to act like an explorer of your topic as if you first set foot on new land. Bring ample curiosity and empathy and enjoy the spoils.

By Menno van Dijk & Berend-Jan Hilberts

About the authors

Menno Van Dijk, Co-founder and Managing Director at THNK. School of Creative Leadership. Menno is a Former McKinsey Director, working in strategy, organizational design and operational improvement in Media, High Tech and Energy. Functional focus: growth, innovation, digital. Was leading McKinsey’s European Media practice for 7 years. Created NM Incite, McKinsey’s first ever co-branded JV with a third party, Nielsen. NM Incite helps businesses harness the full potential of social media intelligence to drive business performance and is active in 22 countries. Work experience in most European countries, US, Australia, South Africa, China and India. Has lived in Netherlands, Australia and South Africa.

With a background is in business strategy and innovation, Berend-Jan Hilberts has consulted internally and externally with companies on generating new ideas and creating new platforms for growth.