Avoid These Mistakes If You Want to Lead Innovative Teams

Note: This post is adapted from my new book The Seven Things Your Team Needs to Hear You Say. If you’d like practical leadership tools with immediate results, it's available now at Amazon.

What Would Happen If...

“David, what do you think about…”

A few months into her second year of college, our daughter Averie texted me with a question. In college and living independently for the first time, she told me she was baking macaroons for the student group she leads. She wanted to know what I thought would happen if she dipped the macaroons in caramel.

Now, I love macaroons and I’ve baked a few myself. I love them plain and I love them dipped in chocolate, but I’ve never had them dipped in caramel. I’d never even thought to try them with caramel. This is something I respect about Averie – she’s creative and will try all sorts of things I wouldn’t dream of – as long as I don’t get in the way.

You see, when I read that question, my mind went into high gear thinking about similar combinations I’d had in the past. In a split-second, the chemistry of the Maillard reaction, the browning of the sugar in the coconut, the nature of caramel, the redundancy of the flavors, all went through my mind and, without ever having tried dipping macaroons in caramel myself, I arrived at the following conclusion: I didn’t think it would work.

I started to type my response. “I don’t –” my text message began.

Then I paused. I’d never actually tried it. Who was I to dampen her curiosity and the fun of discovery?

Where would we be if budding chefs had never experimented with new combinations and new ingredients?

Stop Helping and Say This Instead

Many leaders and managers (and parents like me), in their desire to be helpful (or show off their vast knowledge) give quick answers when team members ponder “what-ifs.”  I’ve done this more times than I care to admit and I’d almost done it again when my daughter asked about those macaroons.

In my coaching practice, one complaint I frequently hear from leaders is that their teams won’t problem solve on their own and lack creativity. Several issues can create a lack of problem solving and creativity, but one of the major problems is a culture that punishes innovation. New ideas have to fight through stifling layers of bureaucracy to be given a chance, or else the slightest “failures” are met with withering derision and criticism.

In either case, you will not see much innovation or creativity in that organization. It’s just not worth it for employees to try.

There are two words your team needs to hear you say that are the antidote to these innovation-crushing cultures: “Try it!”

“Try it!” is about making it safe for your team to experiment.

Try It In the Real World

When you first meet Walter Rackowich, you might be surprised. As president of a Fortune 500 company, you could expect him to be gruff, busy, loud, or a dozen other Hollywood clichés. Instead, you meet a man who is soft-spoken, personable, and likes to laugh.

In November 2008, Walt became President and CEO for Prologis, one of the largest industrial real-estate companies in the world, operating in twenty-two countries with over $45 billion in assets. However, 2008 was a very difficult time to lead. In the eleven months before Walt became President, Prologis stock declined 95 percent, and the company teetered on the edge of bankruptcy while suffering a major crisis in employee confidence.

Walt shared with me how he relied heavily on input and ideas from his team to address the crisis and try to save the company. In his words:

Most of the solutions that you get will be because you've empowered others to come up with the solutions. Frankly, your people should be closer to the solutions than you should be. You don't need to be brilliant. You need to be a person that's willing to listen to other people, bring out the best in them, and foster great ideas.

As they worked their way through a massive organizational turnaround, Walt said he came up with only ten percent of the ideas Prologis eventually used.

When you act as if you must have all the answers, you prevent natural learning from taking place. Real learning grasps the essential elements, understands “what happens if,” makes new connections, finds new solutions, and creates new visions. Be careful not to squelch creativity and risk-taking by trying to help when exploration is needed.

Rick Arthur is another leader who was given his position in very tough circumstances. He was made principal of Denver East High School in a midyear change, without any warning, when his predecessor was forced to resign. The school had been bleeding students and was under-enrolled by almost 50 percent. With no chance to build the infrastructure or team necessary to manage the complexities of a high school, Rick faced the further challenge that the outgoing administrator had erased all the hard drives and every computer file in the school’s office.

If you’d been with me when I sat down to interview Rick about his experiences, you’d quickly appreciate his sense of humor, love of people, and encouraging demeanor. He shared how, in his first meetings with faculty and staff, he laid out the criteria what would govern their decisions going forward: attendance and achievement.

“I made it clear that everything had to be about students being in class and succeeding in their education. That’s what we’d been entrusted to do.”

Then he encouraged ideas. “I told them that if it fulfilled the goals of attendance and achievement, then I was willing to try anything:

As a leader, you want to encourage your people to get creative and come up with answers.

There probably aren’t two institutions more dissimilar than an urban high school and a Fortune 500 real estate company, but Rick and Walt both faced significant leadership challenges, confronted organizations on the brink of disaster, and empowered their teams to come up with solutions. They were both willing to implement good ideas.


Encouraging your team to problem solve requires humility.

As Walt put it, “That’s the best leader. Not needing to be the guy with all the answers, but being the guy who can pull the orchestra together…and extract the best out of people.” Interestingly, Rick also used the metaphor of a conductor to describe leadership. “You try to get the best from every person and make them the stars,” he said.

Your Turn

With Averie, I got lucky…this time. I did not rush in with my own opinion about caramel-dipped macaroons. I texted back, "I don't know..."

Later that night, I asked how she liked them. She answered, “That didn’t work out – I prefer them plain.”

Nothing I could have said would be as poignant or as lasting. (But I still want to try one!)

Leave us a comment and let us know:

How do you foster creativity and innovation in your team?

How have leaders in your life made it safe to take risks?

Note: This post is adapted from my new book The Seven Things Your Team Needs to Hear You Say. If you’d like practical leadership tools with immediate results, it's available now on Amazon.

Take care,

David Dye

Creative Commons Photo Credits: Cookies - djwtwo, Conductor - jiuguangw