When leaders foster a culture of innovation, they enable their teams to be creative, flexible problem-solvers who thrive in the face of change. But what is a culture of innovation? And how does a leader begin to foster one? Building a culture of innovation originates with embracing The 3 Cs: critical thinking, curiosity, and customer-centric design.

Critical Thinking

There is a commonly held theory that critical thinking stifles creativity and innovation. Critical thinking, this theory goes, is traditional, formal and process-oriented. Creativity and innovation, on the other hand, require an unconventional, free-form environment for everyone to tap into their unique ideas. In this theory, critical thinking and creativity cannot possibly coexist.

In reality, however, critical thinking and creativity are integral partners. Critical thinking prevents unintended biases like stereotyping, jumping to conclusions, only seeing what we want to see, and falling in love with our own idea. It expands our perspective and allows us to see solutions in a new light. Creativity alone generates ideas. Creativity combined with critical thinking generates innovation.


Curiosity lies at the heart of all innovation. It prompts us to ask ‘why’ and ‘what if’ even when we think we know the answer. Curiosity inspires us to question our assumption and dig deeper into our customer’s needs, wants and behaviors. We ask: What if X didn’t limit us? What could we accomplish?

Curiosity enables us to reframe problems and see opportunities where others only see obstacles.

Customer-Centric Design

Consumer-centric design places a laser-like focus on impact. Teams with the opposite approach, product-centric design, believe successful innovations are the ones that enthrall consumers with novelty and complexity. They tend to fall in love with pushing the boundaries of specifications and functionality. And, they often ignore the potential for innovation in areas other than product development.

Successful innovations, however, are not ones that solve engineering challenges. Successful innovations, the ones that generate a long-term competitive advantage, provide value to their customer by making their lives easier and more fun. Customer-centric teams focus on the ability of their initiatives to make an impact by solving problems.

Assessing Your Team’s Proficiency

The 3 C’s of Innovation are the foundation upon which teams generate unique and creative solutions that will have a positive impact on your target audience. So, how proficient is your team in the 3Cs of Innovation? In your next few team meetings, ask yourself the following questions:

  • How many new ideas did the team suggest during this meeting?
  • Were the new ideas based on what our company wants to achieve or the problems our customers are experiencing?
  • When someone suggested a new idea, how long did it take for others to begin listing reasons why that idea wouldn’t work?
  • Did the team succumb to any cognitive biases such as overconfidence or group think?
  • How often did the team make decisions based on long-standing assumptions about our customers?
  • How often were new ideas evaluated by their ability to impact the lives of our customers?

If you find that your team is limited to a single perspective, relying on assumptions, or placing the company products at the center of their decision-making, then it’s time to engage them with The 3 C’s of Innovation.

About the author

Rita Santelli is an author, speaker, educator, and CEO. Passionate about making innovation a reality rather than a talking point, Rita helps senior leaders build teams of creative problem solvers who thrive in the face of change. Connect with Rita on LinkedIn, Twitter or at