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How to lead a culture of innovation

28 March 2019

It’s no secret that to remain both relevant and sustainable, organisations must be willing to try new things.

As Albert Einstein said:

We cannot solve our problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

But in a world that’s most often focused on short-term results and obvious returns on investment, it’s hard to create a culture open to new ideas, willing to accept the associated risk that innovation brings.

That’s where leadership counts. Innovative environments in organisations are those where people are allowed to learn from mistakes, grow, develop and improve. 

How you deal with failure matters

Experimentation can lead to failure, but it can also lead to successes. So leaders need to make sure the innovation and experimentation process is valued as much as the specific outcome.

Failure itself is not what leads to innovation: it’s how you deal with failure that matters.

We do have to be careful about what we mean by failure, of course. Failure through incompetence or apathy, failure as falling short of your goals and commitments, or saying you’re going to do something and not doing it, is not a good thing.

What leaders need to encourage is a willingness to experiment and take risks, and an understanding and acceptance that experiments don’t always turn out the way you think they will.

Innovative leaders take failure seriously: they pay attention when things go wrong. By being open and honest about failure —  and by encouraging people to think about what could be done differently another time —  positive risk taking becomes part of the vocabulary of an organisation.

Pace, scale and authenticity

Innovative leaders know that good ideas don’t always come to fruition quickly. When it comes to innovation, fast is not necessarily best. When Movember launched in 2003, only 30 people took part. However, in the past 15 years it’s raised around £450m for men’s health. Some ideas need time and space to develop and reach their potential.

The Movember logoA poster for the Movember foundation









And as well as being aware of pace, there are two other crucial things to remember about encouraging innovation —  scale and authenticity.

Scale: Innovation doesn’t have to be massive. Incremental changes in processes or rethinking why we do things the way we do and seeing if we can do them differently can reap huge rewards. One famous example of this is the Team GB Olympic cycling team:  a series of incremental improvements across everything that goes into competing on a bike, cumulatively led to a significant increase in performance and a heap of gold medals.

This ties innovation in to a focus on what you’re trying to deliver. For Team GB, for instance, the mantra was: “Does this make the bike go faster?” For charities, it will be: “Does this help us deliver our purpose?”

Authenticity: True innovation often comes from deep audience insight and understanding. For example, Cancer Research UK’s Race for Life was built on an understanding that women affected by cancer don’t want to feel like victims.

The role of leadership in developing a culture of innovation

Facilitating and encouraging an innovative and vibrant culture is a key aspect of strong leadership — culture cannot thrive unless it is enabled, embodied and modelled at the top of the organisation.

According to Henry Stewart, author of The Happy Manifesto:

Most organisations call for people to come up with new ideas, new products, new ways of doing things. But they keep in place a structure that gets in the way of these ideas taking shape and, too often, gives people a clear message that it isn’t worth trying.”

Leaders need to make sure they create the mechanisms for innovation.

Innovation can be enabled with financial and logistical support as well as, crucially, by giving people the time to innovate and take risks.

What does this mean in practice for leaders?

Leaders need to take the following steps:

  • Engage with the work that is going on in their organisation. They need to be curious and take an interest in their employees’ projects, express support and ask relevant questions. They should try to be collaborative rather than controlling. Listening is more important than talking.
  • Facilitate new ways of collaborating, new spaces to meet in, new methods to reward people (for trying as well as succeeding), and new combinations of people working together.
  • Embrace digital channels to allow a sharing culture to develop.
  • Understand and allow for the fact that innovative thinking is hard to do alongside business as usual —  most of us are so wrapped up with what has to be done now it’s hard to step back and think how things could be done better or differently. If you want innovation, you need to allow people the headspace to come up with it.
  • Actively demonstrate that they are tolerant of the right kind of failure —  failure through trying rather than failure through not delivering. They must send a clear message to their organisation that constructive mistakes can be valuable if they are used as opportunities to grow and learn. Creating a culture that allows for innovation makes staff more likely to explore, no longer thinking just about success or failure, but also about quality and experience.
  • And finally, when leaders open a loop through encouraging new ideas and enabling colleagues to share them, they must make sure they close it by showing what happens next and what impact that has on the organisation and the cause.

ACEVO inspires and supports civil society leaders by providing connections, advocacy and skills to enable them to make the biggest possible difference. Find out more at

This case study is part of CharityComms’ Innovation guide.



Vicky Browning


Vicky became CEO of ACEVO, the charity and social leaders’ network, in January 2017, helping to empower our inspiring sector leaders to make the biggest difference they can to their beneficiaries, their organisation and to society. Vicky was previously CharityComms’ director for nearly seven years.