Everyone loves disruption, right until it comes to their doorstep.

As humans, we seem to be hardwired to protect the status quo, even if future gains may rationally point us towards change.

It’s no wonder that we face resistance to and lack of support for our efforts to innovate. All of our colleagues, especially those at the top, may talk a lot about innovation, but all too often, that talk isn’t translated into action.

To be successful, beyond mastering the skillsets and toolsets of doing innovation, we need to develop the muscle of leading innovation, which is mostly about getting the buy in and support from company leadership and other functions, and creating an environment enabling - not blocking - innovation.

Over the last months, we’ve hosted conversations with several cross-industry innovation leaders about what has worked for them doing just that. Here’s a summary of some of their lessons learned.

Ambiguity, Incentives and Language

For Tom Waller, formerly SVP Advanced Innovation, Chief Science Officer at lululemon and soon at Adidas, the first lesson focuses, above all, on ambiguity. Uncertainty drives innovation, and organizations tend to succeed or fail based on how they approach this ambiguity. It's tempting to value the security of the present and to eliminate ambiguity too quickly with prior thinking that reinforces the past as ‘safe’.

True innovation leaders encourage the opposite. They offer clarity on the future vision, building a clear North Star to work towards.

At the same time, they also enable innovators and creative thinkers to simply start with a blank page, operating with minimal information and yet still being able to take an idea, incubate it, and commercialize it to market. Focus on where you are going, assuming there’s a solid vision, and not on how to get there will foster a healthy environment of inventiveness.

The next lesson revolves around incentivization. The structure that innovation leaders create, the training they provide, and the rewards available for innovation, are hardwired to the output of innovation that the organization will see.

That doesn't mean tying innovation to a single or classical ROI that might only work for short term outcomes. Instead, it's about searching for impact, and rewarding that impact. Rewarding momentum, navigating the learning from failed experiments, even when that effort doesn't lead to commercialization, and supporting the transition of ownership,can go a long way towards building an innovation program designed to encourage creative thought and a healthy relationship with risk versus reward.

Finally, innovation leaders need to create the language necessary to not just communicate with their own team, but with others across the organization. In that scenario, they're typically presented with three choices:

1. Teaching others to use startup, technical and innovation-focused language in an accessible way
2. Learning the commercially critical language that drives total success for the whole organization and showing where innovation consistently creates value
3. Creating new, shared languages with cross functional partners that everyone can rally around and trade on in order to eliminate any ‘them versus us’ communication and culture behaviours

Mindset and Diversity

Abim Kolawole serves as the Vice President of Integration at Northwestern Mutual and previously served as the head of innovation. While many people think of process and ideas as the starting point for innovation, the true starting point is the mindset, actions, and culture created by leaders.

Leaders need to take a step back and think about their own personal mindset and how this causes them to show-up. First, is the leader able to think disruptively? Leaders who successfully lead teams focused on innovation and transformation tend to have their own personal history of disruption. If you look at the career path or history of these leaders, you will find that they have taken risks, challenged themselves, and stepped out of their comfort zones. These experiences enable them to think innovatively and to come to the table with a play to win attitude rather than playing not to lose. These leaders are better able to avoid the straight and narrow path and instead to walk a path that leads to innovation and transformation.

Leaders need to ensure they have diverse perspectives contributing to their projects. Look at the room and challenge yourself and other leaders to critically review what voices are at the table.

Innovation is about creating something that has new value for clients through a repeatable process. If you don't have people in the room who think differently and look differently, the odds are high that you will not end up with the best ideas or the ideas that best serve your customers. Make sure you have different mindsets, people who disagree with you, and people who have different experiences contributing at each stage of the innovation process. This way when you are testing, piloting, and engaging with clients, you are confident you are bringing something of value.

Movement (Not Mandate)

When Louise Kyhl Triolo, now VP Global People Development at VMware, headed up intrapreneurship at Airbus, realized what the shift was the company needed to make in order to stay competitive, and especially, how big the sift was, she took it to the people.

Strategic placements in transformation rooms led to 20,000 eyeballs on the current culture, making the need to change obvious. The resulting epiphany about the need to change, a commitment to transparency, ultimately led to an org chart-spanning passion for culture change. This is because people across the company want to be part of something bigger; they are keen to contribute to the transformation

For Louise, she has learned that culture change is a movement, it is not a mandate. This fundamentally changes how we communicate as well.

We tend to get caught up in corporate language; always using the same neutral buzzwords that look good as bullet points in Powerpoints. But we need to shift to storytelling, making change personable and relatable, using more emotional and informal language.

Gut Decisions and Feelings (Not Data)

One of the key lessons for corporate innovators is the ability to influence decision-making by translating ideas from imagination to reality, says Florian Bankoley, Executive Vice President - Global Information Systems & Services at Bosch. If you lose this, you are basically telling the team that even though you know how it may be done, and that's the future you are striving for, you will never be able to make it work.

When we apply the iceberg metaphor to decision-making, we see that only 20% of the information we need to make a decision is available to us. The other 80% is based on the subconscious, which revolves around gut decisions and feelings.

The problem with this is when your limbic system is not accustomed to the new technologies, such as in a new business, you don't know how to judge with your gut. First, because you will only have a few data points to base this decision on. In comparison, if you are in an established business, you can make a decision right away because you have done it quite a few times before. That is why in a completely new business, if you are a member of the board or a member of a divisional board, you will often look at a problem, and you actually will not know what to do because you won't have a gut feeling just yet, due to your lack of experience.

As a result, this will lead to analysis and paralysis because you will constantly be sending ideas back to try again and get more data. This will mean that as a business, you will not be progressing. However, this is not because the data is not there. It's because the gut feeling is not there. So in our efforts to influence, don’t just feed information- we have to address those gut decisions and feelings.


DuPont is perpetually pursuing and improving innovation, taking on the innovator's mindset that it's never good enough and asking what more they can do. They ask themselves how they can get faster, looking for areas of opportunity, and challenge themselves to think about what's holding them back.

Of course, there are always detractors when it comes to innovation. One of the biggest detractors on DuPont's innovation journey came in the form of nostalgia.

DuPont's Chief Technology and Sustainability Officer Alexa Dembek says that there are always going to be people who say, "This isn't the way we do things around here." Innovation requires a cultural change. There has to be a willingness to change the way you work if you are going to deliver on the purpose of the company and make a difference in people's lives. As Alexa put it:

"It's our job to get people to stop looking in the rear-view mirror and thinking about the good old days. Those days are over, and now it's time to look forward. Don't let nostalgia be a reason not to change."