Innovation is a mystery for most people, though there are a very few that seem to have a knack for it. There are also the rare few who are serial innovators, but their success does not seem to illuminate the process for the rest of us. Amazon has over nine thousand books with “innovation” in their titles, yet one study found that only four percent of innovation projects ever achieve their return on investment targets [i]. What’s missing?

Innovation has been described as a “race to the future” where there will be drivers, passengers and road kill [ii]. We have so many interpretations, models, and processes for innovation, yet mostly we see road kill and passengers. Innovation is one category of human action and interaction that seems mysterious, along with leadership, effective teamwork, management, and even communication. Why are these skills so unclear and rare? These are symptoms of a cultural blind spot. We need to awaken to something essential that is currently missing in our understanding.

My colleague Dr. Peter Denning and I spent seven years researching the blind spot of innovation and published our findings in the book The Innovator’s Way [iii]. What we found is that there is a pattern to successful innovation shared by all successful innovators. By studying the stories of successful innovators and serial innovators we were able to distinguish a pattern of necessary actions and skills that generate effective innovation. We were able to distinguish what’s missing in the standard approaches to innovation.

Invention is coming up with something new. Innovation is getting people to use it

Among our discoveries was that people tend to confuse invention with innovation. Invention is coming up with something new. Innovation is getting people to use it. Coming up with an invention does not mean you have produced an innovation. We articulate innovation as getting a community to adopt a new practice.

While there are many processes for invention, research and development that produce an avalanche of new products and inventions, the mainstream approaches and processes for getting these inventions adopted are largely unsuccessful. The large majority of patents never generate enough revenue to cover the cost of their filing. While marketing and sales address getting people to buy things, innovation overlaps these fields but goes beyond them. Innovation includes getting a community to adopt new practices, an organization to change its processes, a team to learn new behaviors, a professional to learn new skills, and a profession to adopt new standards.

The innovation process always includes the steps of

  • Revealing and considering the value of something new,
  • Trying out the new practice,
  • Committing to adopt the new practice,
  • Learning the new practice, and then
  • Integrating the new practice into our current set of practices.

This process can be as simple as buying a different product, or as complicated as entering years of professional study. The process always encounters some sort of resistance along the way.

The size of the challenges we will face and the level of resistance we will encounter is largely related to these questions:

  • How basic are habits that have to change?
  • How fundamental are the beliefs and prejudices that have to change?
  • How big is the gap between the skills of old practices and new?

Sometimes the resistance is just discomfort in new behaviors. Sometimes the resistance arises because the new practice changes old roles, identities, and power structures.

Part of the blind spot of innovation is that our culture focuses on the externals of action, figuring out what to do, and then manipulating something out there to get something done. However, innovation requires internal learning, shifting not just concepts, but also embodied skills and emotional repertoires. We need to change behaviors, not just ideas.

We need to change behaviors, not just ideas.

When innovation is easy and doesn’t perturb our comfort zones, then it doesn’t require a big shift in our internal patterns. But big opportunities often require big changes that take us outside of our comfortable old patterns. We have to learn new frameworks and new emotional skills. For example, it can be a huge opportunity for entire organizations or cultures to perform better if they can learn to say “no” when it is appropriate, rather than saying the automatic “yes” that cannot be fulfilled.  But it requires new emotional skills, for leaders and staff, to create safety for honest conversations.

What is the new frame of distinctions and attention needed for innovation? It is the frame of human interaction, coordination, and communication. When people interact and coordinate new actions, or decide to change how they coordinate actions, it always happens in conversations. The unit of innovation is the conversation. But we found it takes particular kinds of conversations, and these conversations require particular skills.

Innovation requires particular kinds of conversations, and these conversations require particular skills.

We found that there are eight conversational practices, or skill sets, that underlie effective innovation. By conversation we don’t just mean particular words or speaking, we mean the skillful interactions that produce a particular reaction in a listener. Conversation is a performance art, but it does have structure and criteria that allow it to be observed, learned, and practiced. And this structure includes the emotional tone and body reactions of the conversation.

Another blind spot of our culture is that we don’t take seriously the power of conversation to generate outcomes. We tend to think of communication only as the transfer of information rather than the coordination of action, the creation of the future, and the articulation and provocation of care and commitment. We call this capacity of conversations to generate actions and outcomes its “generative” capacity. This is the basis of our use of the term in “generative leadership.”

In the case of innovation, there are eight conversational practices of effective innovation. We refer to them as practices, since they are skills that we learn through practice, and have a structure in application – the practice. Each is unfolded in detail in The Innovator’s Way, but the point we can clarify here is that each practice is observable, actionable, learnable, and produces a desired outcome in a structured set of steps. This structure of steps is essential and unavoidable and allows us to see what might be missing or possible in our innovation efforts.

In the case of innovation, there are eight conversational practices of effective innovation.

Let’s see how the eight practices reveal the steps and skills for effective innovation. The first five practices are a high-level set of steps.

1. Sensing – The entrepreneurial skill to sustain our attention on a possibility that is not clear yet.

2. Envisioning – Telling the story of the future that shows possibilities that are valuable and worthy of consideration.

3. Offering – How to make an offer that is designed to be valuable enough to be accepted, at least for a first try.

4. Adopting – The conversations to commit to and engage in the new behaviors of the innovation to achieve the value it produces.

5. Sustaining – Integrating the new innovation into the ecology of prior practices.

The other three practices are skill areas that are fundamental to the effectiveness of the five steps.

  • One is developing the capacity for producing and coordinating actions.
  • Second is somatic, or body-based, learning. This is key to go beyond understanding concepts to produce skill in action.
  • And third is leadership, the specific conversational skills to maintain focus, commitment, and produce trust and followers in conversation.

If you want to go deeper into specifics of the skills, standards, breakdowns, and learning practices for each of these conversations then I refer you to The Innovator’s Way.

But the point here is that there is a structure, it is observable and actionable, and it can be learned through practice. In fact, it must be learned through practice. That is how learning for skill happens, instead of only learning for conceptual understanding.

The conversational path is essential and unavoidable. The path to skill is the path of learning. The path of learning is the path of practice. This particular path is also the path of leadership. You notice that leadership is one of the essential practices for innovation. Yet all leadership involves innovation as well. The conversations overlap – new commitments and new actions to a new outcome and a new future.

To lead innovation is to lead conversations

To lead innovation is to lead conversations – having them, helping others have them, and creating trust and value for new commitments, learning, and behaviors. The challenge for us as leaders is that when we start something new or go beyond our edge to new territory, we are beginners. We make mistakes, and learn through experimentation and exploring where we are not competent. Effective learners find coaches and guides. As leaders, we need to show others how to learn. Then we can learn innovation skills.

If we are willing to be a learner, rather than an expert; if we are willing to be uncomfortable for the sake of new value, rather than staying in our comfort zone; if we are willing to practice instead of just understand; if we are willing to learn in new territory instead of fitting the new into what we already know; if we are willing to bring courage to stand for new possibilities; if we are willing to face resistance and face questions with no immediate answers; then we are ready to lead innovation.

There is a path that is not mysterious – it is the innovator’s way.

Leading innovation is first leading ourselves on a journey into new possibilities. Then we can lead others. There is a path that is not mysterious – it is the innovator’s way. In the innovator’s way, we can invent, learn, and embody the skills to create a new future, to take care of what we care about, and to create a good life.


BusinessWeek, Get Creative!, August 2005.


Prahalad and Hammel, Competing for the Future, Harvard Business School Press, 1994.


Denning and Dunham, The Innovator’s Way, MIT Press, 2010.

To listen to the audio recording of this conference call about People Power of Effective Leaders, CLICK HERE.