Leading innovation: how can you make the biggest difference?

Rachel Dale, Head of Leader Development and Talent, Sky

Rachel Dale, Head of Leader Development and Talent at Sky provides useful tips to consider when leading innovation in your team. Rachel is presenting at the CIPD Behavioural Science at Work Conference which takes place on 1 October 2019 in London. Book your ticket today.




Leading innovation: the one thing that makes the biggest difference

Someone in your team comes to you with a new idea. You think it stinks. How do you react? Well, take a breath before you do, because the way you answer will shape how effective innovation will be your team. 

At Sky, we tested at a list of 20 specific leader behaviours that might promote innovation culture with over 600 of our people. Which one do you think had the biggest influence? The leader who “creates a safe space for me to try out new things” is the one most likely to see innovation in their team. In the top 5, there were three behaviours that related to how a leader created safety for their team. It’s easy to say, but what do leaders need to do? 

  1. Be a bodyguard

Many of our most innovative teams are led by people who act like innovation bodyguards. They protect time and resources for innovation. They keep the negative critical influences at bay, even when that means putting themselves in the firing line. Innovation is easily crushed by well-meaning criticism from outside of your team.  Remind your bosses and other departments that it won’t be perfect first time. Reframe their concerns before they get passed on to the team. Or stop the team hearing their concerns at all. Create a safe space for you team to focus on new thinking. 

The best bodyguards also help their team break through barriers. Claudia Kotchka, former Chief Innovation Officer at P&G recast her job title as Chief Barrier Buster. Her mantra? “Come to me when you need help.” It’s a mindset shift, from team controller to team protector and enabler. But your reward is priceless – a team that constantly delights you with innovation. 

  1. Respond well to ideas, consistently 

How you respond to ideas makes a huge difference to how innovative your team can be. Our research has shown leaders who critique with empathy have more engaged people. The trick is to critique the specific bit of the idea that doesn’t work while showing the person you still value them. 

With early ideas, try framing your feedback using “I like…., I like….., I wonder…..”. That way you encourage the team to amplify the things you like in and can provide alternative suggestions for the things you don’t. 

Further down the process, there are tougher decisions to make. Killing bad ideas is part of your job. But you can still show you value the person, identifying what they’ve done well, while killing their idea. That way they’ll try again. 

And finally, beware the bad day. It’s easy to critique without empathy when you’re frustrated or disengaged. Don’t. If you can’t provide feedback that will motivate people to try again, do it later when you can. You need to kill the idea, not the person’s motivation. 

  1. Measure performance differently for innovators 

Innovation means taking a risk for individuals. There are no guarantees it will work. The decisions people make will be strongly influenced by how much they think failure will attach to them personally. If they think failure will result in a black mark on their reputation, they will take the safe (typically less innovative) choice. 


This one can’t be changed by a few cheery team meetings. You need to think about how to measure ‘good performance’ both formally and informally. True innovators consistently learn, but short-term failure is frequent. To encourage innovation, you need to shift your view of good performance in innovation to be to sharing learning that helps others innovate. Not delivery. Without this, people will continue to choose the safe, “I can deliver that” option. 

The biggest direct influence on the quality of innovation a team produces is its culture. And our research in Sky has shown us that the biggest influence on innovation culture is individual leader behaviour. These three changes to make it safer to innovate can make a huge difference to the innovation results you see in your team. 


Rachel is presenting in the session titled “What the best leaders do and what behaviours they avoid” at the CIPD Behavioural Science at Work Conference which takes place on 1 October 2019 in London. Book your ticket today.