Not Sure What Innovation Means for Your Team? Ask Madeleine

March 16, 2024 Madeleine Homan Blanchard

Dear Madeleine,

I work in fashion manufacturing. I was promoted about six months ago. I manage the supply chain, timelines for delivery of goods, etc. I have a huge team and work all hours because I am in western Europe and my teams are in China, Mexico, and Vietnam.

When I took the job, things were a bit of a mess, and I am very pleased to have turned things around. I instituted new software and updated processes. We have worked through the kinks and things are humming along nicely.

My boss seems pleased with my work but told me the executive team is seeking more innovation in my area.

I have asked for more detail because I am stumped. I thought the place for innovation was in the design of the product, not in the execution required to get it to market. Taking the job felt like a big risk for me, and I am more confident now that I have had success. But my sense is that innovating requires taking risks—and there is no tolerance for errors that might impede our ability to deliver on orders.

I have zero confidence in my ability to innovate in this job. My boss is not offering any insight into what “more innovation” might mean for my group. Maybe I am asking the wrong questions.

Any ideas?

Zero Ideas


Dear Zero Ideas,

You might be suffering from a language dilemma—because the crazy thing, ZI, is that it sounds like what you just did was innovate, and in a big way. You see yourself as someone who spots what isn’t working and does what needs to be done to make it work. A problem solver, perhaps. It probably didn’t occur to you that everything you did to fix the mess (trying new ways and working through the kinks) was, technically, innovating.

I would submit that the executive team sees you as an innovator because of what you just accomplished, and they are asking for more. So just for a moment, at least for the time you spend reading this, can you accept that you are already an innovator? It is a shift in your mindset that may require suspension of disbelief, but may be worth trying on.

Britney Cole, our vice president of innovation, has a lot of wisdom on this topic (you can read her most recent article here). She says the first step to innovation is to define it. Her definition: “Innovation is the discipline of applying ideas that solve problems in new ways to create value.”

Can’t you see yourself in that definition?

Another of Britney’s insights is that to be successful, innovation efforts need to have two specific things in place:

  1. A person who is dedicated to continual improvement (you).
  2. An innovation-friendly company culture.

As you seek to develop yourself as an innovator, you can rely on your natural talent for identifying problems and finding the best solutions. You can build on that talent by asking yourself these questions:

  • What is working brilliantly (that might be applied elsewhere)?
  • What pain points still exist in our business (that could stand improvement)?
  • What new ideas have surfaced that might benefit from further inquiry (that perhaps we have discounted in the interest of efficiency)?

I suspect ideas will begin to pop immediately. For more guidance on what to keep in mind as you go, here is another article from Britney.

An additional suggestion, which I learned directly from Britney, is to apply the design thinking “How might we” approach to solving problems or making improvements. (Please forgive my total ignorance of your business, but I am going to make up a few examples based on your letter):

  • Now that things are working well, how might we leverage technology to make them even more efficient?
  • How might we minimize confusion caused by working across multiple time zones?
  • How might we scale so that our business can grow more quickly?

It’s possible your organization may not be that friendly to innovation, so you may have to be a trailblazer to shift your culture. This might even be what the executive team is asking for. When senior leaders in companies want more innovation but have no idea how their culture actually discourages it, they tend to identify individual innovators and hope that they can help. It is a classic example of how lack of clarity at the top of an organization can show up; it is a bit of an “I’ll know it when I see it” attitude that is, frankly, irresponsible—especially since a culture of fear already exists that you will need to work against.

Here is an e-book about The Factors That Encourage and That Discourage Innovation in Organizations. This may help you identify the potential obstacles you could face from a systems standpoint as you seek to experiment.

It is totally fair that you require more detail, and you are probably right that asking more questions may help you get what you need. Your instinct to ask questions is right on the money. The key is to keep asking until you get the insight you need.

Here are some ideas. If none of these is quite right, I hope at least they will spark others that feel more useful.

  • What will the executive team see or have if I innovate more?
  • What results would make a difference to the organization?
  • What is making the executive team most nervous about our business/ the marketplace/ the economy?
  • What problems does the executive team see that innovation would solve?
  • What is most important to the executive team, and is maybe not being addressed?
  • Are there things our competitors are doing that we need to be doing?

And finally:

  • If we rely on the above definition of innovation, how might our business add or create new value that would excite the executive team?

Your first step, ZI, is to shift your self-concept. That alone will increase your confidence. Continue to do the things you are good at: spotting problems and solving them. Keep asking questions. Go slow. Build plans and get feedback. Get buy-in every step of the way.

I suspect you will surprise yourself.

Love, Madeleine

About Madeleine

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response soon. Please be advised that although she will do her best, Madeleine cannot respond to each letter personally. Letters will be edited for clarity and length.

About the Author

Madeleine Homan Blanchard

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a Master Certified Coach and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. She is coauthor of Blanchard’s Coaching Essentials training program, and several books including Leverage Your Best, Ditch the Rest, Coaching in Organizations, and Coaching for Leadership.

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