In The Words of Robert Sutton: How Great Bosses Lead Innovation, by Robert Sutton

How Great Bosses Think About It And Do It

21 Ideas About Leading Innovation
Published on June 10, 2010 by Robert I. Sutton in Work Matters


My Stanford colleague Hayagreeva (Huggy) Rao and I have been leading an executive program at Stanford every November for the past four years that is called Customer-focused Innovation.  In the mornings, we discuss the theory and practice of innovation with the executives.   In the afternoon’s,Perry Klebhan from the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (which everyone calls the Stanford leads the group as they go out into the world to try to tackle read world problems — such as improving the experience of visiting a gas station or buying a car.  For this program, Huggy and I put together a list of 21 evidence-based ideas about how great bosses lead innovation.   We would love to hear your ideas about ways  great bosses spark innovation as well a concerns — and extensions — related to these ideas:

1. Creativity means doing new things with old ideas.

2. Treat innovation as an import-export business.  Keep trying to bring in ideas from outside your group or organization, keep trying to show and tell others about your ideas, and blend them all together.

3. Look for and build “intersections” build places where people with diverse ideas gather together.  And  when you got there, talk to to the people you don’t know, who have ideas you know nothing about, and ideas that you find weird, don’t like, or useless.  If you are squirming a bit, it is a good sign.

4.  Treat your beliefs as “strong opinions, weakly held.”

5. Learn how to listen, watch, and keep your mouth shut.

6.  Say “I don’t know” on a regular basis.

7.  Have the courage to act on what you know, and the humility to doubt your beliefs and actions.

8. Reward success and (intelligent) failure, but punish inaction.

9. Make it safe for people to take risky actions and “fail forward,” by developing a “forgive and remember culture.”

10. Encourage people to learn from others’ failures – it is faster, easier, and less painful.

11. Eliminate hiring and reward practices that reinforce cultures where “the best you can be is a perfect imitation of those who came before you.”

12. Hire people who make your squirm.

13. Create teams composed of both experts and novices.

14. Make it safe for people to fight as if they are right, and listen as if they wrong.

15. Encourage your people to be “happy worriers.”

16.  Sometimes, the best management is no management at all.  Know when and how to get out of the way.

17. Have the confidence and resolve to make tough decisions, stop your people from whining about the decisions made, and to get on with implementing them.

18. Kill a lot of ideas, including a lot of good ideas.

19.  Innovation entails creativity + implementation.  Developing or finding a great idea is useless if you can’t implement it or sell it to someone who believes they can.

20. Remember Rao’s Recipe for Innovation: Will +Ideas + Tools.

21. Innovation requires selling your ideas.  The greatest innovators, from Edison to Jobs, are gifted at generating excitement and sales.  If you can’t or won’t sell, team-up with someone who can.

And, although we celebrate innovation, we think it is important to rememver that there is a lot about innovation that sucks.  Yes, it is necessary, but innovator beware, it is an inefficient and distressing process plagued by a high failure rate — and a lot of self-delusion. And that is when you are doing it right!

Sources include:  Rao’s Market Rebels  Sutton’s Weird Ideas that Work and Sutton’s personal blog Work Matters. 

About Kathleen Turner

Kathleen Turner (Kathy Yeaton), MBA, President of i2s Advantage (formerly Marketing & Research Partners, based in Dallas Texas), helps Fortune 500 and start-up organizations create and sustain a competitive advantage and build value. Kathleen is a frequent writer and speaker in numerous associations. Contact Kathleen for other articles or more information at 214-632-0183, via email, or visit i2S Advantage online at
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