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The U.S. is traditionally the hotbed of global innovation and I believe it’s likely to continue to be well into the future. This is good because innovation changes the world by definition.

However, many of my clients have struggled with leading innovation and from perusing the leadership and business literature, most other organizations do too. I have to ask myself – why is that? Why can’t a country that practically invented innovation as a lifestyle and workstyle in places like Silicon Valley institutionalize this important capability?

After much pondering I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s because innovation so often happens in the unplanned places. This is something of a conundrum for many leaders whose manufacturing B-School heritage tells them that everything should be planned out, documented and accounted for.

Innovation – like its sister creativity – cannot be planned, budgeted, shoved into a “retreat” or predicted. It happens in the shower and in the in-between spaces of life and work.

Leading innovation is difficult because you have to risk looking like a fool. Fear of shame is one of the biggest inhibitors every leader faces and many succumb to. Leading innovation is a perfect example of the kind of risk great leaders take on and fearful leaders eschew. To “invest in innovation” is to put good, hard resources out against what is guaranteed to be largely a basket of failures… except for that one “big one” that comes along every so often. On its face this looks crazy. Put out good money with no guarantee of return? Take such a high-risk bet knowingly? But when the great leader looks under the basket, they often discover that in those failures are seeds of success. Sometimes it’s a specific idea that results, sometimes it’s just reenergized employees, which can pay back in employee creativity, retention and improved customer service.

Companies who invest in their employee’s creativity often see rewards. This is what Google does. They allocate some space for that creativity to happen and it always does because that’s how people are wired. Read Daniel Pink’s Drive for highly readable research into human motivation and how it relates to your staff.

Leading innovation takes courage and in our business culture, telling everyone to put “pencils down” and chill out in the playroom (whatever that looks like for your company) still feels like an unnatural act. But then again, leadership isn’t about doing the easy thing, is it?

Innovation is a personal skill too

Creating space for creativity and innovation is not just something organizations do; it’s something people do too. We have the power to create the space in our lives for innovation to occur by simply – creating space in our lives.

Yes, it seems counter-intuitive to “do nothing” so that “something” will result – until you do it and experience that font of creativity and energy that wells up when all the other stimulus keeping your brain busy subsides. Then it makes all the sense in the world. In the silence and boredom (that doesn’t last very long) ideas are born and passions are found.

These personal innovations can enrich your life, set you on a life-changing journey or simply frustrate you until you learn to give them more space. But one thing is true, once you’ve let the space for innovation into your life, your life and your work will never be the same.

3 things you can do to create space for innovation into your life

  • Turn off the TV.
  • Give yourself permission not to answer every email.
  • Take an hour a week to yourself to do whatever you want. Then two. Three. Until you have to stop. What comes up for you? Pay attention.

What happens for you when you create the space for innovation? Can you apply this in your work? With your team? Have you asked your team what making space looks like for them? What would they do in that space? How can you give them more space for innovation? How can you reward them for the seeds of successes they plan there? What happens when you do?