Four Best Practices for Leading for Innovation

During this past year, which has been dramatically shaped by our response to the coronavirus pandemic, healthcare workers demonstrated they could push through stress, pain and untold human suffering to find better ways to care for others.

Their collective creativity and innovation has been phenomenal, leading to:

  • faster, more efficient supply chains for critical equipment and supplies;
  • massive reorganizations of facilities and workflows to accommodate the demands of treating highly infectious – and often significantly ill – patients; and
  • streamlined and expedited research and development for new therapies and vaccines.

As we’ve seen, people are naturally innovative and creative, but sometimes external factors give them the extra impetus needed for thinking outside the box and pushing boundaries to find the best answers. How can we seize on this current spirit of cooperation and continue to fuel inventive thinking after the pandemic has subsided? How can we continue to accelerate innovation?

It starts with leaders who can create environments that promote collaboration. When I’m working with hospital leaders across the United States, I employ these four best practices to begin building that kind of culture.

  1. Keep your people focused on your patients, customers and clients.

Only by truly understanding your audience’s issues and problems can you begin to offer solutions that work. As I’ve seen in Cincinnati, my hometown-based Kroger quickly realized at the start of the pandemic that people didn’t feel comfortable coming into the store, but they still needed groceries. Store managers quickly developed a pickup service, allowing customers to order groceries and go to a designated part of the parking lot where their bags were loaded directly into their car.

Walgreens rolled out flu shots in their parking lots. Local stores learned to tell customers to stick their left arm out the car window if they wanted the shot in that arm, or move to the passenger side and put out their right arm if they preferred that arm instead.

These ideas didn’t require lengthy approval processes. Someone took initiative, figured out a better way, and got things done. Innovation doesn’t have to be dramatic. It can be incremental and begin from the simple place of, “What can I do to serve our patients or take care of something that’s important to them?”

  1. Accept progress over perfection.

If you keep striving for perfection – and refuse to move until you’ve crossed every “t” and dotted every “i” – you’re going to miss a lot of little advancements that can really add up. Over time, those baby steps will eventually lead you to that golden ring of perfection. By appreciating and enacting small ideas, you’ll move closer to your goal. You’ll also define a new element of your culture by encouraging people to think creatively and submit their ideas.

  1. Allow for failure, but require people to learn from it.

Just as we all have a creative gene, we all also have some level of fear of failure. People want to be successful. We want to make a difference. We want to do a good job. Even more, we want to support our families and succeed at whatever we attempt. “Well, what happens if I fail? Will I get fired, take a salary cut, lose a spouse?” We have to help our teams overcome their very real and tangible concerns about failure, especially right in front of the boss, by telling them that it’s OK. But – and this is the most important part – they have to learn from their experience because it will make them think differently the next time they have an idea.

For the past half-century, After Action Reviews, first developed by the U.S. Army, have been an effective tool used to pull leaders together after an event to talk about what worked, what didn’t work and what they might have been done differently. In the case of my Kroger, managers might discuss how the initial grocery pickup signs created a traffic jam. The review would help them figure out how best to direct this customer segment in the future without creating complications in the parking lot for other visitors and offer more precise pickup times to reduce the numbers of cars arriving at the same time. There were early failures, but they learned from the experience and encouraged other people to try their new ideas. The goal is to encourage your players to keep getting back in the game after a misstep. 

  1. Enable and promote collaboration.

Don’t just hope it will happen on its own: Encourage and organize your teams to support creative thinking. We need to show people what collaboration looks like – which includes encouraging them to tell their point of view before we tell ours. Teach them to be curious. Put people from different backgrounds, cultures, and experiences together or assign them to new roles. Then focus them on solving a particular problem and – especially in a pandemic – bringing creativity to their work.

Plus, when people get curious about what others are doing, it often encourages new thinking and elevates ideas. By reinforcing this approach and modeling it, leaders help to make it part of the culture.

Given that we had so little understanding of the novel coronavirus and the myriad impacts it would have on our daily life at the start of the pandemic, we’ve seen amazing breakthroughs and innovation. Some of them have been incremental wins, like COVID-19 tests in pharmacy drive-thrus. Others have been transformational, like wider acceptance of telemedicine. We’ve also seen radical disruption, where we’ve blown up the way we historically developed and tested vaccines to deliver in a moment that matters.

Most people don’t find opportunities to play a role in disruptive innovation, but everyone can make incremental improvements, and many can even be part of transformational ideas. The more leaders create an environment that allows their people to present fresh ideas and think in different ways, the more they can build a culture that survives past the current stress and strain.


How do you nurture innovation and creativity among your employees? Share your idea with the Innovation Lab.



Dr. Michael O’Brien is president and CEO of O’Brien Group, which, like the Innovation Lab, is part of The Innovation Institute. O’Brien Group provides leadership consulting aimed at increasing the executive capacity of teams to lead better and change faster.