Leaders might be the biggest blockers of innovation at any company. And it's often due to certain mindsets. Through my experience of building things and teams for the past 13 years, and also reading books on the topic, I've found that it can be boiled down to three things:

  • Not being close to the action
  • Not being able to change
  • Being too opportunistic

Not being close to the action

Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel and author of "Only the Paranoid Survive," explains that leaders who are removed from day-to-day operations may miss out on grassroots innovation and fail to recognize emerging problems requiring innovative solutions.

Leading while being away from the action can lead to an atrophy of practical knowledge that weakens leadership muscles. The bigger the distance, the less capable a leader is of offering valuable strategy and direction. Or worse, become a talking head.

My solution: Block intentional 'learning time' with different teams, diving deeper into a topic with the people working on the frontlines. As a leader, it's easy to mistake that practice with reviewing work. Ask questions, learn, and save reviews and buy-ins for a separate forum with clear expectations. The people you manage will find it less intimidating and open up.

Not being able to change

In the "Innovator's Dilemma," Clayton Christensen mentions how some capabilities that make a company successful can also become disabilities for disruptive innovation. Processes and organizational structures can help a company work efficiently and prevent it from responding to changes and opportunities at the same time.

The same can be said of leadership skills. As a leader, you need to know when the behaviors that got you this far are preventing the next big step from happening. There are many examples of leaders doing everything "right" only to have their strategies fail in small and big ways.

My solution: Reevaluate processes and strategies and throw them away as needed, even if they're really successful. Test new ideas and ways of working at a smaller scale to inform the process.

Being too opportunistic

This one comes from personal experience, but several authors cover this, too. Creating lasting products requires consistent, diligent work based on a strong vision. In the absence of those elements, opportunism takes over, and the work becomes an investment in whatever is in fashion. That leads to constant changes and confusion for teams, with a lot of work done but only some being meaningful.

There are always forces that might nudge a leader into following opportunism. A particular senior leader is interested in it; the market rewards using a specific technology. The list goes on. They can spark something, but they're just a start. You need the vision to walk the rest of the path and develop the stamina in the people you lead.

Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?
The Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.
Alice: I don't much care where.
The Cheshire Cat: Then it doesn't much matter which way you go.
Alice: ...So long as I get somewhere.
The Cheshire Cat: Oh, you're sure to do that, if only you walk long enough.

Lewis Carroll, "Alice in Wonderland"

My solution: This one is trickier, but I do something simple to inform my self-reflection. I ask the people I manage how they feel about our direction, specifically how much they think it has changed. Too much change might mean we don't know which direction to go. No change in direction is unrealistic and might suggest we're too stubborn or not learning enough. The main point here is to engage in dialogue so you know where you fall on the spectrum.

Innovation is influenced more by how we do things rather than what we do. Mindsets can fuel stellar work, or stop great ideas from forming altogether.