Innovation: leadership is what makes it or breaks it?

Continuous innovation demands a new leadership mindset

Innovation is having an idea and executing it so it creates value. It requires creativity and insight to meet. It is about solving problems and imagining possibilities.

In a fast-changing and highly uncertain environment, new problems replace old ones at unprecedented pace and what?s valuable to people is in constant evolution. That?s why innovation must be continuous and approached strategically at organization level.

Continuous innovation demands a new leadership mindset: embracing the unknown, learning to operate with uncertainty and adopting a learning mentality. What?s the role of leadership in determining the ability of a company to continuously innovate?

Leaders become chief experimenters and system architects

Leaders for innovation set an ambitious vision, shape the culture that enables the pursuit of that vision and set the innovation strategy. They are concerned about building the values, the systems, and the collaborative platforms that bring innovation to life. They empower and trust, encouraging multiple experimentations while steering the organization to keep course. They are system architects and chief experimenters rather than decision-makers and visionary-in-chief.

Leaders for innovation create the special conditions for curiosity, inquiry, and creative friction to thrive and to fuel productive change in the organization. They create the psychological safety and culture of trust necessary to encourage new approaches to problem solving.

How do they do it?

It’s about pursuing order and chaos at the same time, in a fine?balance

Of course, leaders want their company to run with efficient and effective processes, but process kills creativity. Therefore, leaders in organizations set for continuous innovation allow some inefficient chaos to happen. They do so while still retaining some control over it, like Google does with the 80/20 rule or 3M with the 85/15 one. Besides these sandboxes, they foster creativity by routinely engaging with startups and disruptors in other industries, like Angela Ahrendts used to do at Burberry inviting people like Marc Benioff, Simon Sinek, Tony Hsieh and Gary Hamel to our headquarters in London to speak to us. They were mind opening moments that shaped our culture and encouraged us to think well as creating very stretched goal challenges.

It’s about creating psychological safety and a sense of belonging

Leaders that foster continuous innovation ask questions not only about the business, but also about how people are doing. They connect and create inclusive experiences, so people feel they are part of a bigger group, mission and valuable purpose. They create a special energy that makes employees feel proud, energized, motivated to make a difference. I can never forget Reg Sindall, EVP at Burberry, the boss of my boss when I started at the company, who used to come around our desks on a regular basis to just chat with us. He would ask questions about our private lives, with genuine interest. He wanted to greet personally even our interns. It made everyone feel important, a human being before being an employee.

Innovative leaders model vulnerability by sharing their own experiences and include some challenges or crazy ideas in their storytelling, so others feel comfortable doing the same. They communicate regularly across multiple channels and listen attentively to what happens inside and outside the organization.

They reframe failure as an opportunity to learn. When something doesn’t go as planned, they create space to capture what was learned and discuss it. They recognize and reward strategic risk taking, even when it?s not successful.

They create an environment where individuals feel safe in speaking-up, experimenting and taking risks in the pursuit of a shared purpose.

It’s about holding a clear vision, acting with courage and building resilience

Disruptive leaders set a clear vision and communicate it effectively throughout the organization, speaking to hearts and minds.

Setting a compelling vision takes courage and holding it in place in the face of adversities takes conviction and resilience.

Contrary to popular opinion, vulnerable leadership isn’t soft or weak. Brenee Brown, author, storyteller, and research professor at the University of Houston, says that vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.

When failure occurs, disruptive leaders rise back faster than anyone else. They have built resilience, they learn from failure, their mission is their beacon and motivation to keep going, asking new questions and generating new ideas for unconventional solutions.

It’s about being extremely present, focused and most importantly self-aware

Inspirational leaders are centered, as Bain& Co’s research finds out. Centeredness is a state of mindfulness that enables leaders to remain calm under stress, empathize, listen deeply, and remain present.

Self-awareness is the ability to recognize and understand our moods, emotions, drives, and how they all affect others. Focusing on developing this quality is essential. With self-awareness, we can observe when a situation, thought, or person triggers us. We can provide a realistic self-assessment of our current emotional state and the drivers behind our behavior.

The first thing to do to build self-awareness is slow down. By intentionally pausing activity flow and restoring contact with their inner resources, leaders create more room to make grounded choices, break habits of mind and behavior, and bring genuine presence to the workday’s complex tasks and interactions.

Goleman finds those with greater self-awareness have a self-deprecating sense of humor. To see ourselves clearly including the often irrational reactions we have in situations requires light-heartedness.

Innovation requires leaders who are first and foremost human beings, not superheroes. Human beings at their best, curious and ambitious, open and tuned in, trusting and empowering. They value people, culture and purpose as much as they master strategy and business design.



You don’t know your customer anymore

You don’t know your customer anymore

You don't know your customer anymoreTraditional algorithms cannot help in predicting purchase behaviors today because they are based on historical data. Behavior change brought about by Covid19 invalidates much of this data. How can brands effectively reach customers...

Reshaping Retail for the Future

Reshaping Retail for the Future

Reshaping Retail for the FutureA blend of digital and human for a forever changed customer The pandemic has changed the way we live. Consumers have started purchasing heavily online and plan to continue to do so. What we purchase and what we care about when we...

How to stay relevant in Retail

How to stay relevant in Retail

How to stay relevant in RetailOriginally published by Greg Petro on                I recently had the opportunity to connect with Francesca Danzi, the Chief Client Officer of Tory Burch, whom I met on a panel at the World Retail Congress. Francesca has...


We are based in New York, London and Rome and work with companies anywhere in the world.