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ATD Blog

Foster an Innovation Mindset Among Leadership

Tuesday, February 7, 2023

This is the second in a five-part series by ATD’s CTDO Next consortium of top talent development leaders who are shaping the future of the profession. This series explores the levers of innovation—the places where talent development can lead. The five innovation levers include:

  1. Creating a culture of innovation
  2. Fostering an innovation mindset among leadership
  3. Building innovation capability
  4. Empowering teams to innovate
  5. Optimizing systems and processes for innovation

We know that innovation is impossible without committed and capable leadership. In a truly innovative organization, the leader must:

  • Be an innovator, the innovator in chief
  • Lead others to innovate
  • Create the conditions that enable innovation to happen

If leadership encourages, rewards, and models innovation, talent development (TD) can provide tools and training to teach skills and behaviors that those leaders can use to reinforce the culture. If leaders enable transparency, encourage risk taking, and create communication and feedback channels, TD can provide development programs that fuel those channels.

We can provide our leaders access to thought innovators, best practices, development programs, and other tools to help them create and communicate innovative strategy. We can facilitate processes so leaders decide when, where, and how they expect the organization to innovate. We can teach them innovation tools and how to model and support a culture that demands fresh approaches.

Let’s focus on the three leadership responsibilities that TD professionals can practice to help leaders facilitate innovation.

Be the Innovator in Chief

Development resources can help leaders be intentional about their innovation practices, aware of how they come across, and understand their strengths and weaknesses (especially their blind spots). Our leadership profiles and models should emphasize innovation as a mindset and a skill set.

We can design our resources to help leaders model an innovation mindset. We can give them what they need to be lifelong learners and well-informed, hypothesis-driven risk takers. We can teach them to investigate ideas outside of their expertise and combine them with seemingly unrelated concepts. To do so, we must activate our critical thinking and ask questions that challenge the status quo without being antagonist or combative. We can provide tools for benchmarking outside of their departments, functions, or company. We can instill the capability to seek out diversity, embrace experimentation, and admit to failure. We can work with leaders to build teams that are willing to take risks, pivot, and change. This ensures that leaders are fostering innovation further down in the organization, creating a culture of innovation.

We can encourage an entrepreneur’s approach to leadership, teaching leaders to test their ideas before announcing them, invite important stakeholders into co-creation, and refine their elevator pitches for new ideas. We can help them make sure the resources and infrastructure needed to support their ideas are available, that the targets and measures are clear, and that a change management plan is in place to get the organization ready.

Lead Others to Innovate

It goes without saying that leadership should support innovation—evangelizing, prioritizing, resourcing, and rewarding it. But the devil is in the details.

We can work with leaders to make sure they communicate what innovation means in the organization and the attendant expectations for all employees. We can help them convey their assumptions and priorities clearly. TD can work with leaders to define and promulgate clear decision criteria so that everyone knows how new ideas will be analyzed and evaluated. We can help them define the processes and boundaries for experimentation and teach them to lead with questions.

Some may misinterpret innovation as a kind of free thinking without limits. But it’s not simply about white space and idea generation. Innovation requires intent and discipline. It requires guardrails, direction, and focus.

We can help leaders define roles and responsibilities for innovation in the organization and identify or designate champions, innovation coaches, “power innovators,” and leaders of continuous improvement. We can show them how to build and support diverse networks, assemble innovation teams, and promote diversity of thought.

We can offer tools and training for better hiring, to consider untraditional people for new and redesigned roles and to identify people who can think outside the box. What does untraditional mean in this context? Think about cross-functional representation. For example, if you’re trying to solve an operations problem, consider including someone from marketing or another functional area. They will bring a different lens and ask questions that operations experts might overlook.

TD resources can help leaders prioritize learning and upskilling, making them part of everyone’s responsibilities.

Our development programs can teach leaders how to better create psychological safety and comfort with ambiguity. We can show them how to optimize the systems, processes, rules, and rewards they control to spur greater innovation.

We can show our leaders how to measure innovation based on what’s most critical to the organization. These measures can be quantitative, such as research and development spend, total number of innovation teams, or number of new products or services launched. They can be qualitative, like polling employees about how innovative they think their managers are or how free they feel to innovate in their roles.

Using measurement tools, we can give leaders the skills to reward, prioritize employee growth, and develop a corporate culture of innovation.

In this age of digitization, leading innovation also means embracing technology. We can help leaders:

  • Embrace new tech.
  • Involve their teams in adoption and use of new technologies.
  • Understand that new technologies are a tool to aid innovation, not innovation itself.
  • Coach employees through professional development.
  • Take actions to increase the ease and speed of adoption.

Create Conditions That Enable Innovation

We can help leaders create the right conditions for greater innovation in the organization, but the goal is to do even more. Adopting design thinking tools and providing bigger budgets is not enough. Leaders can instill a mindset that maximizes return on the skills and behaviors that enable and empower innovation.

The leadership communication skills we teach can emphasize openness and transparency, how to share good news and bad, and how to be clear and honest about information that can’t be shared. Consider reframing the word “failure” as learning. Help leaders recognize what their company’s—and each specific project’s—risk tolerance is. There are likely times when failure is not an option, just as there are times when getting an 80 percent solution or less is acceptable. We can give them the skills to share these experiences, especially their mistakes and what they have learned from them.

The TD function can provide leaders with ongoing development that empowers individuals and teams and feeds a culture of innovation. We can help them drive the cultural values of democracy, transparency, and inclusion. We can show them how to encourage collaboration and provide teams with tools for easy and open communication. We can show them how to provide swift, positive, and accurate feedback.

We can help them structure their organizations to minimize barriers to experimentation and optimize failures—to learn from those projects that did not go as planned. We can show them the systems and processes that honor and reward teams and help them sustain a focus on innovation.

We can help leaders build an environment where people get comfortable with ambiguity, new perspectives, and new ideas—where employees aren’t afraid of big goals or big problems because leadership has confidence in them.

Fostering an innovation mindset among leadership requires the TD function to be intentional about everything we do to support leaders. If innovation leadership is the ability to inspire constant creativity and invention in others, our job is to make sure leaders have the tools, resources, support, knowledge, and skills to do that. And the more confident they are in their abilities, the more likely they are to inspire innovation, even in the face of uncertainty, ambiguity, and risk. An innovation mindset is a competency. It can be developed, and we can develop it in our leaders.

About the Author

Tim Tobin is a leadership development professional committed to helping individuals and organizations reach their greatest potential. He is currently vice president of openings, compliance, and learning at Choice Hotels International and has held senior level positions in other global organizations.

Tim is a frequent leadership speaker, consultant, coach, and the author of Peak Leadership Fitness: Elevating Your Leadership Game and Your Leadership Story: Use Your Story to Energize, Inspire, and Motivate. He has been recognized with several industry awards for leadership program excellence, and he earned his Doctorate of Education in human resources development from George Washington University. On a personal note, Tim is an endurance athlete and has completed over a dozen marathons and 12 Ironman triathlons. Connect with Tim at or

1 Comment
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HI Timothy, You mentioned that "we know that innovation is impossible without committed and capable leadership". How do we know this? I think that innovation can occur without committed and capable leadership. I could be totally wrong.
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