Innovative companies are led by example—by execs who practice innovative management on a daily basis. If a company’s leader isn’t innovative, the company culture, products or services probably won’t be either.

So, what do innovative leaders do that others don’t? And what innovation tools can you practice to become a more innovative leader?

Here is what we learned from Hal Gregersen, Coauthor of The Innovator’s DNA and  Co-creator of our corporate innovation training program Innovator’s Accelerator, during Apollo Professional Development’s Building a Culture of Innovation Webinar.

Innovators Practice these skills everyday

Gregersen discovered that innovative leaders practice five skills on a daily basis. In part one of two, we summarize three skills below. These innovation tools will help you refocus how you think and spend your time so that you can become more creative in your work.

Innovator’s skill #1: Associational thinking

We’ve all heard the phrase “think outside the box.” But how exactly is that done?

Associational thinking is one way to escape the box. Let’s imagine the box is your industry, and to think inside the box is to problem solve in the same way everyone else within your industry does.

You may come up with good answers, but not innovative solutions. Associational thinking looks at other industries, maybe even other disciplines non-business related, and finds ways of “connecting the unconnected,” as Gregersen puts it.

Gregersen gives the example of Elon Musk’s ability to oscillate between the automotive and space industries and to find that breakthroughs in one can complement the other.

Innovator’s skill #2: Catalytic questioning

If you’re stuck for answers, you may be asking the wrong questions. Questions open up your imagination.

Innovators are constantly asking questions; in fact, they regard questions as equal to, if not more valuable than answers, and their questions tend to outnumber their answers, according to Gregersen. Their questions also challenge the underlying assumptions that most leaders either take for granted or are not even aware of.

Why do we do things this way? Does it have to be done that way? What would happen if we tried this?

Being free to ask any and all questions can catalyze new ways of thinking about the problem, uncover new connections and possibilities.

Innovator’s skill #3: Observing

Innovations come from seeing something you overlooked, or re-seeing what you’ve been looking at all along.

Innovators are always observing the world around them, looking for what they have not seen before.

They seek out new perspectives and insights by watching, for example, how customers are using products and services, or how technologies are affecting processes.

Gregersen gives the example of Doug Dietz, Principal Designer, GE Healthcare, and Kathleen Kapsin, Administrative Director, Pediatric Radiology Department, Children’s Hospital of Pittsburg. Both Dietz and Kapsin completely transformed the Children’s radiology department after looking at the rooms and equipment from a child’s point of view.

Stay tuned for part two of According to Hal Gregersen, Innovators Practice These 5 Skills Every Day. Want to receive content about innovation strategy, techniques, ideas and more in your inbox every other week? Subscribe to our bi-weekly Learning & Development Insights newsletter at the bottom of this page!


Hal Gregersen is Coauthor of The Innovator’s DNA, Co-creator of our corporate innovation training program Innovator’s Accelerator, and Executive Director, MIT Leadership Center. He has studied the habits of 25 of the most innovative entrepreneurs world-wide and surveyed more than 3,500 executives and individuals who either founded, work at, or invented products for innovative companies.