Everyone has heard this term, yet few leaders have a solid understanding of what it means to have an innovative mindset and to also identify which of your team members have it, too.

Here’s a case in point: We recently worked with a senior leader whose team was engaged with an outside group that does strategy consulting.

He was advised by this group of consultants that he and his team needed to “think outside the box.”

When the executive called to arrange a coaching engagement with rd&partners, he admitted he was perplexed and did not fully understand what these strategy consultants meant in practical terms.

This is very common, as cute clichés are often tossed around without provision for real assistance on a practical and actionable level.

To assist this executive leader and his team, we needed to help him understand some fundamentals about innovation.

From our experience of working with hundreds of executives, we have determined the following three basic elements of innovation that leaders need to understand.

Three Keys of Innovation You Need to Know

  • First: Leaders need to know what it means to have an Innovative Mindset.

Our definition of this is quite to the point; it means being able to generate creative or novel solutions to problems that – and here’s the key – result in improved performance.

That’s what having an innovative mindset is all about.

  • Second: You can and should measure innovation. How?

By simply tracking what new ideas, improvements, or creative solutions you and your team proposed recently, and the number of these proposals that were adopted.

This is your Innovation Scorecard.

  • Third: Embrace the fact that innovation is situational.

That is, the expectation of what innovation looks like at, say, the Morton Salt Company is quite different from the expectation of innovation at Apple.

So deciding where on the continuum your organization is on and where it needs to be, is a dialogue worth having.

So What Is a Leader to Do?

If you want to increase your organization’s ability to have an innovative mindset, as a leader you should do the following:

  1. Challenge your team to view issues from multiple perspectives. (i.e. What would a competitor do, or what would new owners do?).
  2. Be cautious not to rely too much on facts and data alone.
  3. Allow room for ideas that arise from intuition or hunches — don’t be too quick to decide or judge. Be alert to any tendency to judge too quickly either by you or your team.

Selecting for the Innovative Mindset

Selecting for team members who have an innovative mindset is not all that difficult.

It does help to have a set of selection questions that get at the salient issues and traits found in those who think innovatively.

To this end, here are suggested interview probes that we have found useful to help leaders select people who demonstrate an innovative mindset:

  • Give me at least two examples of your ability to propose innovation at work.
  • What new ideas, improvements or creative solutions have you proposed recently? Were they adopted? Why?
  • What specific steps have you taken to create an environment that fosters and appreciates creativity and innovation?
  • Give me some examples of your most innovative business ideas. (Listen for creativity.)
  • Tell me about a time when you were stubborn about accepting a new idea. What information would have helped you support the idea? (Is the candidate too stubborn to consider an idea in the absence of perfect supporting data?)
  • Describe a time when you made a quick recommendation or offered a solution that you later regretted. What were the circumstances? (Listen for a tendency to commit too quickly to a new idea.)

Going Forward:

These are some quick points that will help you to not only create an innovative mindset and environment within your company, but will also help you to answer the proverbial question: “Do you think outside the box?”