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Are You As A Leader Stifling Innovation? – by Ria Tucker

Are You As A Leader Stifling Innovation? – by Ria Tucker

In our latest guest blog, Ria Tucker explores how the thinking errors of our leaders can impact innovation. There are some key questions to stop and ask yourself whilst reading this article, write them down and when you are in the throws of operation, take the time to ask yourself the right question at the right time.

How Thinking Errors of Leaders can impact Innovation

“You know you need to find the next ‘big’ thing and want to create an innovative culture to move your organisation forward.  So, you’ve pulled together a team of your most creative people, given them 4 hours in a room together to ‘brainstorm’, provided the tea’s, coffees and biscuits and have set up the white board.  

Now all you need to do is wait to see what they come back with, right? Errr, not quite”.

Every leader knows, innovation is essential for the survival and success of any organisation, yet the generation and implementation of these innovative ideas is deemed far from satisfactory across most leaders. Well, part of the problem is the trap and general misunderstanding those leaders themselves fall into, when creating and facilitating the right environment.

If you are a leader, who wants to embed an ‘innovative culture’ within your organisation, then an understanding and awareness of the natural cognitive biases (shortcuts our brains take) of both you and your teams will be key to the success of the process.

What these cognitive biases do

The world we live in today is vastly complex and hugely demanding and our brains have evolved over time and learnt from this.  To help us manage this demand our brains now take mental ‘shortcuts’ and it is these ‘shortcuts’ that feed our biases.  

These biases can work for us and have kept us safe and surviving as a species for thousands of years, steering us away from the unknown, risk and change. However, they can also work against us.  An element of the unknown, risk and change are all common factors when it comes to the innovation process and these biases can result in restrictions on our ability to think creatively and innovatively.

 Here are 4 of the most common natural cognitive biases leaders face in innovation and some examples of how they can play out;

The confirmation bias

Innovative thinking does not come naturally or easily to most people and humans are intrinsically lazy! With the confirmation bias, we look to confirm what we already believe to be true, whether we are a leader or not.  When we are on autopilot and our brain is using the well programmed ‘shortcuts’ it has created, we are not thinking creatively or innovatively, we are closed to new ideas and we are not challenging ourselves. We are instinctively programmed to follow the safest route and that of the status quo.

Questions to Ask:

  • What autopilot will your team be led by and how can you intervene in this?
  • What is your autopilot brain saying and doing?

Loss-aversion bias

How do you feel about failure? How does your team feel about failure? If the overall feeling is bad, then you have your next hurdle towards innovation right there to overcome.

The loss-aversion bias reflects emotions of anxiety and fear. Our environment has taught us over the years to avoid fear as this means risk and often failure – risk of looking bad, risk of losing our job etc etc. However, mistakes and failed attempts provide opportunities to learn and these can often have been the starting point of innovation.  Innovation needs to involve failure and if leaders do not allow failure and if they do not create an environment where the failure is ok, they will kill any future innovation.

Questions to Ask:

  • Do you promote your employees on the basis of the results achieved or the process?
  • To what extent can your team tell you the truth?
  • How are you creating a safe enough culture to encourage innovation?

Status quo bias

The status quo bias can play out in a number of ways. Leaders can often enter into an innovation process with the view that only a handful of people in the business are truly creative.  Wrong, everyone is creative given the right encouragement and environment. Its important for leaders to challenge not just themselves but their teams on this.  Some team members are more imaginative than other’s, but everyone can be trained and can practice to think more creatively.  Utilising all the different perspectives and a good cross section of your business in any creative process, will give real innovation a strong chance.  Content teams are said to be less creative, so every team needs those who will challenge the current thinking.

Questions to Ask:

  • How am I empowering my teams to be more creative?
  • Have you got the right people involved?

The ‘ta-dah’ moment…

Ok, it’s not quite a bias but it can most definitely impact the success of the innovative process and is one worth mentioning.

Innovation does not need to be a complicated, time-consuming activity but likewise it is rarely something which can be completed start to finish in a 4 hour brainstorming session! 

Many new ideas are part of an incremental process which has iterated and failed several times over before innovation is achieved. If you or your team are expecting to achieve the ‘ta-dah’ moment by the end of the week then you may end up giving up before you really get going.  As a leader it’s important to set expectations and give creativity and innovation the freedom it needs. Innovation rarely emerges from a ‘ta-dah’ moment. Instead, the best innovative environments are those where a system for continual creation of new ideas is built into the business and pivotal in the way it operates.

Questions to Ask:

  • How can I reward the process as well as the results?
  • Am I prepared for there to be mistakes and failures along the way?
  • What process have I set in place for ideas to generate?


I have chosen to highlight just a few of the common biases but these are just the tip of the iceberg. There are hundreds of biases which individuals bring everyday to the organisations where they work. Above are the some of the most common which impact almost all at any one time. You may be interested in looking further into the below;

·        Authority bias

·        Zero risk bias

·        Pro innovation bias

·        Anchoring bias

Given the uncertain and sometimes risky nature of the innovation process, many of these biases will impact the ultimate success of building an innovative culture and even innovation itself.

As a leader it is your role to understand and be aware that both your approach and the approach of your team will be affected by these sub conscious biases. If you know this then you know that you will need to challenge this thinking to limit its effects.  This will then give these ideas and innovation the best possible environment to thrive.

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