The secret innovation skills you need – that are rarely taught

The balance of skills, attitude and experience required depends a bit on what innovation means to your organisation. Sometimes you need to be a product development manager, sometimes a culture change manager, more often both, and on occasion, once you’re in post it’s for you to interpret what the organisation needs and what the senior leadership want – which are often different things. Then there’s the innovation brief that makes my heart sink, ‘we want to innovate and change and disrupt – but we want to be sure it will work’, setting an innovation manager an impossible challenge from the outset.

Sound familiar?

However you choose to approach innovation in your business two things are consistent regardless of what sector or industry you work in.

  • Innovation is about spotting an unmet need or solving a problem. It’s about generating ideas and implementing solutions to make life better for your target audience (and that might be customers, clients and employees).
  • Not all of your ideas or innovations will work.

This means that an innovation manager has to be a lot of things; a diplomat and a dictator, a negotiator with a bloody-minded streak, an ideas person and a completer-finisher, a business analyst and a dreamer, candid and kind, a risk taker who likes a safe bet and possess both gravitas and humility.

The secret skills of innovation are often at opposite ends of a spectrum. You have to be well versed in contrast and contradictions and be able to flex between them in a blink of an eye.

Here are my top tips to thrive in the contradictory role of an innovation manager;

1.   Exude confidence in your approach and also confident vulnerability about what you don’t know. Help people to feel comfortable with diving into the unknown. Help people to learn that it’s OK not to know the answers, and that is part of ‘doing innovation.’

2.   Get a chronic case of ‘toddler syndrome’ and keep asking ‘why?’. Don’t settle for the ‘way things are done here’. Challenge ‘the way we do things here’ at every opportunity and help others to do the same.

3. Become very self-aware, what assumptions or stories do you have that prevent you from doing something new? Keep challenging yourself as well as others to unlearn what you know. Ask, ‘What if we had to start from zero – what might we do differently?’

4.   Be charming and disagreeable. Open up discussions, encourage different points of view and alternative ways of thinking, and do it in a way that others find enchanting.

5.   Take innovation very seriously and also not seriously at all at the same time. You’re looking for an important breakthrough which is serious business, yet our best thinking occurs when we are relaxed and even more so when we’re in a playful mindset.

6.   Be sensitive and thick-skinned – sensitive to the needs of your colleagues and partners. Remember that many people fear change, so tune into and be mindful about how your colleagues are feeling, yet at the same time focus on the needs of your audience, the people that you are innovating for, which sometimes means forging on through despite everything if you are going to deliver on your brief.

7.   Fall deeply in love and be fickle – to innovate, to introduce something new, you have to fall in love to have the passion to keep going to overcome barriers when things get difficult (because things will get difficult). You also have to be fickle and prepared to fail fast and drop your idea if it doesn’t work.

8.   Move fast and slow – turn your ideas into reality as quickly as you can. Don’t wait for perfect and a big launch, involve your stakeholders and your customers as early as possible which can sometimes slow down progress but the insight you gain will be worth the reduction of speed.

9.   Smile, (even if inside you are crying) and be respected for making good decisions and getting the job done rather than being known for being ‘nice’.

10. It’s OK to cry, to be vulnerable and for the idea not to work. The important thing is to share why not and what next so that everyone involved can learn.

11. Focus on why making change happen is important and lead by example. Help to shift the organisational culture to help people have the courage to try, followed by the tenacity to learn from failure and give it another go.

Those soft skills that are rarely taught, they are skills that you learn by trial and error, and that are hard to articulate on a job application. These are the skills that make you a successful innovator. At Lucidity we run training, provide coaching and consultancy on the ‘soft’ skills you and your organisation require to succeed at innovation. If you’d like some help perfecting them then get in touch at hello@lucidity.org.uk.

You might also like the Lucidity Network – a place for people pushing to make change happen, a place to learn, a place to share and a place to connect. Check it out and join us here.

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