How do innovators behave?

What are the behaviours that identify an innovator? What are the behaviours that demonstrate that a leader is supportive/expectant of innovation from others?

As our Deputy Secretary David Hazlehurst recently blogged, one of the tasks the Innovation Champions have given themselves is to identify some of the essential behaviours that support innovation. These behaviours will help guide the Champions in their work to support and embed innovation within each of their organisations.

An example of a supportive behaviour is one that I learnt from Google earlier this year – simply ensuring that you respond to someone’s new idea with “yes, and”, rather than saying no and explaining why something won’t work. This is important because we need to build on the ideas of others if we want people to put forward new thinking.

Speaking from experience, one of the behaviours that I have found essential as someone trying to advocate for and implement new initiatives is persistence (or obstinacy as some people unkindly refer to it…). If you want to do something truly new, you have to be prepared to deal with blockers, with reasons why something cannot/should not be done, with processes ill-suited to a new approach, with delays and frustrations. You need to stick with it if you want to see the new idea/approach come to fruition.

Others would suggest that leaders need to be agnostic towards failure. If leaders expect everything to succeed, then the people around them aren’t going to put forward new ideas that might fail.

Pia Waugh has shared that leaders need to “Demonstrate innovation! Show the thing. Leaders need to lead by example and show how innovation can look in their own work program, otherwise they won’t understand innovation in practise and it sounds like empty rhetoric.” And that innovators need to demonstrate “Proactive engagement in identifying opportunities and best practices, personal development, collaboration, sharing, big picture thinking and generally taking an attitude of building on the shoulders of giants.”

This an area where there are many views, which is why we want to narrow down on some core behaviours that make sense in the public service context. We are consulting with others, and there’s a lot written on this, but we wanted to hear from others.

What do you think are the behaviours that identify an innovator?

What do you think are the behaviours that leaders need to demonstrate to show they are open to innovation?

Let us know what you think, either in comments or through email. We will share our compiled findings later.

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How should innovators not behave? | Public Sector Innovation Toolkit
October 16, 2015 at 9:01 pm


  1. “Others would suggest that leaders need to be agnostic towards failure.” sums up my view.

  2. Some behaviours I would like to see more of:
    – always scanning the innovation environment for good ideas and ways to make application practical
    – demonstrating system thinking so that innovations in one area are not doomed to failure because of another limiting factor
    – demonstrating positivity and a can-do attitude to others
    – communicating repeatedly what the goal of the organisation is and how ‘this’ innovation will help us get there
    – active networking and collaboration so that good ideas go to the right people to develop innovation
    – persistence and focus on an idea to carry it through to resolution (product or abandon)
    – cultivation of sponsors!

  3. Thank you for those additions and points.
    Some other suggestions we’ve been sent include ‘tenacyity’ and that innovators:
    • Seeks to understand (by listening and questioning) to analyse situations, processes, workflows, etc in order to be sure of the outcomes required
    • Solution building: Sounds out ideas to him/herself and to others.
    • Presents ideas, tries ideas etc
    And that leaders:
    • Recognises and supports innovators
    • Providing support/resources etc.
    • Doesn’t panic when innovation doesn’t work, (e.g. is patient and persistent)

    We’ve also been pointed towards some suggested reading including and

    Please keep the comments, suggestions or questions coming.

  4. How do innovators behave?

    I struggle with this to be honest. It’s like saying ok let’s innovate and everyone sits there going I am not an ideas person. Everyone has ideas, everyone! being innovative is in our nature – think about at home, just move away from work for a minute and think about how you find shortcuts or ways to do things faster etc. I know I do.
    Behaviours, well it depends on the time, the context, the people you are with… so many factors.
    then you have people that come up with ideas all the time but they are not at all thought out and just not good. Sometimes people need some tools to get their minds thinking and work creatively, there’s a lot to be said about having the space and time (permission) to be innovative. Therefore leaders being open-minded about how people work is very important and recognising simply ...

    ... asking for ideas is not the answer.
    I hope that makes sense.

  5. Hi Alex
    How do innovators behave?

    Well in our government setting, they recognise that conventional wisdom, current policies, processes and services are not always the best or only solution – They would actively challenge the status quo, encourage discussion and constructive debate, are prepared to engage risk
    Prioritise methods for accessing and developing the creative potential of their customers, stakeholders and staff – They ask questions of staff, customers and stakeholders, value diversity, encourage creative thinking and problem solving, provide both time and appropriate resourcing, reward those that share information, are flexible, are adaptable, experiment and are collaborative,
    Make innovation work by methodically putting good ideas to the test – are opportune and persistent, support ongoing process of adaption and experimentation, piloting and learning.

  6. I’m all about being adaptive and changing what doesn’t work.
    The phrase I live by is “embrace the awkwardness”, as everything new is difficult and awkward to create and build. Only by talking about what is working (and not working) can we build innovation and leadership in those we are surrounded by.

    Behaviours needed are:
    1. Encouraging discomfort
    2. Discussing and learning from failures
    3. Building on the core of what works
    4. Ensuring others are able to spread your vision and innovation (‘cos it’s not all about you!)

    Look forward to seeing your findings.