Industrial organizational psychologist Danny Gandara discusses how leaders drive innovation


How Leaders Drive Innovation

Curious about how leaders drive innovation? It can shift your team in a positive direction, says Danny Gandara, who explains the benefits of an innovation mindset, how to identify roadblocks, and why embracing failure is key.

Publish Date: February 6, 2024

Episode Length: 26 minutes

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In this Episode

Industrial-organizational psychologist Danny Gandara discusses how leaders drive innovation and explains how to implement an innovation mindset, sharing tips for identifying roadblocks and why embracing failure is key.


Beth Almes:

Hi leaders, and welcome back to the  Leadership 480 podcast. I'm your host, Beth Almes. And today, we have a somewhat elusive topic to discuss: how leaders drive innovation. Now, this is one of those things that where great intentions often don't meet action.

A lot of leaders say they want their team to be more innovative, but they don't actually do it. Maybe it's because leaders don't have the time to try something new, or they're scared to take the risk, or any other number of reasons. But the benefits are so strong when you do it right.

So, here with us today to help leaders overcome all those barriers to innovation is our very own Danny Gandara. Danny has a Ph.D. in industrial organizational psychology and is the senior product innovation manager here at DDI where he leads all of our innovation efforts to advance our products and technologies at every level. Danny, welcome to the Leadership 480 podcast.

Danny Gandara:

Thank you so much for having me, Beth. I'm quite delighted to be here.

Beth Almes:

So, I'm curious overall just what got you started in innovation. So, as an industrial-organizational psychologist, you've really spent a lot of your time on the science of leadership, not always known for innovation. So, how did you get into this space of innovation?

Danny Gandara:

Interesting path that led me here. Back when I was finishing out my PhD, I was also teaching somewhat of a consulting, somewhat of a capstone type course with our senior and junior students at my university. It's the interprofessional project program at Illinois Tech.

And I was brought on to teach and even help with the assessment of leadership skills, teamwork, all the IO pieces, communication, the aspects that support the team's functioning. I was partnered with someone from the Institute of Design, where they taught the project, the innovation side of it. And the first semester that I picked it up and was teaching alongside with them, I found love.

I was like, "Oh my God, this is amazing. These two go so well together hand in hand." And over time it went to I started leading my own project teams and then teams of project teams and really starting to embrace all of the philosophy, innovation and design.

Beth Almes:

That's fascinating. And I'm really curious because there are jobs like yours where it feels like innovation is wholly what someone is focused on. But for so many leaders, it's an open question of how much does innovation really come into their jobs?

So, I'm thinking if you work in healthcare and you lead a nursing team or if you work in manufacturing, a lot of people might say innovation isn't really part of my job as a leader. So, how do you interpret that? Do you think that that's a skillset relevant to all leaders or, more so, some than others?

Danny Gandara:

I think it very much depends on the type of role. But I would also argue that innovation is never zero in any role. Everyone is required to innovate to some degree. It's all about understanding a problem and putting a solution to it.

So, not just creating new products or new services, but also advancing processes. So, even in healthcare, we see a lot of innovation in healthcare. We also see a lot of innovation in healthcare leadership as well. New ways of being able to communicate with one another.

I love some of the work that I did in the past with surgical teams where bringing in some communication practices within the operating room helps save people's lives. So, even though it's something just contained within that area has significant outcomes. You may call it small, you may call it big, but I think the impact is really real.

Beth Almes:

That's fascinating. And I would tell you, that's a place where I would say while you think of major scientific innovations, when you think of in the operating room, that seems to me like a place where you're like, "Listen, this is no place to try something new. We keep this down to a process." But you actually found that they were able to innovate that process, how they were going about it, and change that.

Danny Gandara:

Oh yeah, absolutely. Something that could be as simple as even nonverbal communication, use a marker, and make sure you're marking the right area that's going to be operated on so you can decrease errors in the operating room.

Beth Almes:

That's fascinating. So, one of the things I often think of too with some of those innovations, they can seem like some things might be very much an immediate thing. I'm going to use the marker, I'm going to check this off. And then there are things that might be longer term that we all say like, well, we really want...

And we always find ourselves, we haven't innovated enough. But I've seen a lot of leaders get really anxious when it comes to the long-term because it's like, if I can't see the benefit of this today, I can't imagine doing it. So, how do you think leaders should think differently about innovation and kind of have the patience for the process?

Danny Gandara:

There's a couple of things that I can think of offhand. Innovation is iterative by nature. So, we want to see whether it's short-term or long-term. It's understanding that you're starting with just a dent, just a small piece of the process, trying out a small experiment, which would also be the other piece of it as well, embracing and creating a culture of experimentation.

What would happen if we tried something this way instead of that way? Sometimes, the impact might be immediate; sometimes, it's not. But it's about adopting that mindset, shifting towards an experiment process in order to see that long-term success.

So, we start something small. Now, let's scale this out a little bit bigger. Identifying all the issues, the roadblocks that come along the way. It's easier to identify them when it's just a small piece and remove those upfront rather than you build everything out, launch it at the end, and then identify all the things that are going wrong with it, putting out tons of fires.

Beth Almes:

Yeah, I think that makes a lot of sense when you think about how risky it is when you aren't getting that feedback along the way, and instead, taking those small steps really reduces that risk sense. I'm curious as you've looked at how leadership behaviors affect innovation, are there things you have seen over time that you say, I've watched leaders do this, and it just kills innovation on their team?

Danny Gandara:

I've got tons here. For one, I would say innovation breeds and requires creativity. And one of the killers here is assuming that creativity is a fixed trait. That it's either something you have or you don't have.

Not acknowledging that it's actually a skill. It's something that could be developed. I thought I wasn't a creative person at all until I stumbled upon this process, and I was like, "Oh, actually, there's lots of ways for me to be creative." Part of it could also be in how you give feedback.

So, being overly critical rather than being curious. Shooting down ideas rather than embracing the possibility. Focusing on perfect is another one. I see a lot of leaders who are like, "It's got to be perfect. It's got to be every i's dotted, t's crossed."

"And if it's not perfect, then we can't put this out to the world." Rather than embracing that, what's the minimum viable service product experiment that we need to really be able to test our assumption with to see if this does have an appetite? Being able to pivot from that.

And also thinking that a solution or your solution or idea is the solution or idea. It's the one that's going to fix everything. I often see that a lot that kills innovation. Just like, "Well, this is it. This is going to be the hill that I'm going to die on. It's my idea or no idea."

Beth Almes:

That can be really hard for leaders to adjust from. And I guess I would say I often think leaders don't even realize maybe they're doing that. You don't necessarily set out to do that on purpose. Say it's my way or the highway. A few leaders do that, but very few.

But sometimes, it's really hard to shift your mindset away from what you were envisioning to understand someone else's ideas. So, how do you suggest leaders start to shift that mindset or create the environment of stopping to recognize others' ideas even when it doesn't match with what they were thinking?

Danny Gandara:

That's where adopting curiosity really is helpful. Not just for yourself but also for those that you're leading, your team members. I see leaders often get stuck in a process because it works. It's worked so many times, it gets us the results that we want.

It's comfortable to embrace this process. We've done it so many times we know what's going to come out of it. But then we find that something in the environment changes and now that process no longer really works anymore. So, we start to question.

We start to get curious about it. Or even if everything is fine or normal, we really ought to question why do we do certain things? Why does this step come before this step? Why do we go through all this list?

There's a reason why things are in place, for example. By again, adopting that curiosity mindset of what led to this being the way that we do things. And opening up to the possibility that there might be other ways. We bring in our whole selves, we bring in our experiences.

Well, this is how I've tackled this in the past, or this is how I've seen others tackle the same issue in the past. And being open to, let's try something different. Test it out. See if it works.

Beth Almes:

The curiosity mindset, I find that really fascinating. So, the idea of taking that moment away from your first reaction. Like you saw something, you're like, "I don't know what this is. I don't know where this comes from." And flipping around to asking a question instead is such a powerful tool.

I imagine you've seen leaders do this really successfully. And I'm curious of how you've seen leaders apply curiosity successfully, as well as maybe some of the other behaviors that you see that they show or things that they do that really build innovation and curiosity on their teams.

Danny Gandara:

So, what I tend to see besides straightforward asking a question, it could be as simple as, just tell me more. An associate tells you something. They're frustrated, for example, at a way a project is going forth. And "oh, it would be great if I could do this instead or if we could approach it from this angle."

Or I need this data in order to be able to really be able to move forward. Tell me more. Why do you think that way? Dig into that why. Why would that help you out? Start to understand more of that.

And really asking that why and encouraging your team members to ask that why really helps reflect that curiosity muscle. Versus the one that I see on the opposite side is, well, this is just the way we've always done it

Beth Almes:

Yeah. And it's hard sometimes, I think, when you see something unexpected, especially when you see innovation that you're like, "Well, that came out of complete left field. I wasn't prepared for it." I love the idea of “tell me why.” Or sometimes using phrases like, help me see or help me see the connection or what might happen.

It's fascinating how it can change your own approach to those things. And one of the things I've often found, too, where leaders tend to kill innovation is that they get super scared about failure. And they're probably not wrong about that. It's real, the risk that they're facing.

But as the leader of the team, how do you start to get comfortable with that potential of failure and lead people through that in a way that it feels like you're driving towards something good instead of you might have some failures that come your way?

Danny Gandara:

Embracing the fear of failure. That was a regular lesson that I've had to teach. I would say start with setting the right expectations, especially as you're engaging in a new idea, in a new innovation. And part of that is communicating that failure is not only going to be expected but should be pursued in the spirit of innovation.

Beth Almes:

That's hard.

Danny Gandara:

Yeah, it is hard. It's very hard, but there is no innovation without it. We need to emphasize that this is a natural part of the process. And switching over to that growth mindset that this is an opportunity for growth and learning. We're going to fail at an idea 99 times before we get it right the hundredth time.

But one thing I also communicate as well is failure means trying something and learning from it. If you're not learning from it, you're not failing forward. It doesn't mean don't do anything. We don't fail because we failed to act.

We failed because we didn't learn something along the way. There's good failure. We want that good failure that lets you embrace learning. So, what needs to change the next time that feeds them to that iterative approach? What needs to change in order to make that successful?

Try something different. Setting that expectation upfront and also celebrating that. Celebrate the failures, celebrate those learnings. Hey, we learned something. We know how to not do that again, or we know that that didn't work, so we're going to try something different. It's effort, it's creativity.

It needs to be applauded. And it helps teach that resilience of setbacks are going to happen. Failure's going to happen. It's okay. It breaks down that image of perfection that we need everything to be perfect. It's like, okay, no, great. So, I remember one of my leaders saying, "So, how did you fail this week?" Yeah, yeah, we adopted that so rare.

Beth Almes:

Wow. That is so rare, I think, to see that. What I've seen much more commonly, not even just from my own experience but from friends, relatives, others, that a lot of times, leaders will say they love the idea of failing forward. Like, "I'm totally on board. Sounds great."

And the first sign of failure, they shut it all down. They get too anxious, too nervous. So, how do you advise leaders to kind of develop that fortitude through failure? So, when you're watching a project start to happen, and you might start to get some negative feedback, or you might start to get some things that stand in your way, how do they know when to call it quits and when to say that's a setback or that's a learning and we're going to keep moving forward?

Danny Gandara:

That's a really great question. I like to start with the end in mind. I'm going to test something, I'm going to try something out. But before I do, what do I expect to happen? It is an experiment. We're talking about embracing a culture of experimentation.

So, what does this experiment look like? If I implement this new change to a process, if I build even a sketch of an idea that I want to implement and start getting some feedback, what is it that I'm expecting to get back? Positive, negative feedback?

I'm going to put this idea in front of five people, and if four of them say it's bad, that's going to be my signal to quit. I'm going to focus that feedback on a specific aspect. I'm thinking about this idea to solve problem X. So, we're focusing on how this innovation is going to help us out and demonstrating that value.

And if after that we're still hearing four out of five have said that this isn't going to work. But it's also about embracing, well, what would make it work? So, maybe part of it is like we stop that altogether. But it could also be that this isn't the right design.

Maybe we need to iterate on it and try something a little bit different. So, with thinking about the end in mind, what is your stop signal? Have that upfront to say, “This is when I will go ahead and cut it off.” Versus this is when I know that we're in the right direction. Versus we need to redesign and try again.

Beth Almes:

Yeah, it seems like a focus on the problem itself, of is this a problem worth solving? And in some cases, it is truly a problem we're solving. Maybe it's something you're experiencing every day that's a pain point for people. But in other cases with innovation, it's really a matter of just doing things the safe way or trying for better.

And that's so challenging to stay focused on the potential of what you could get out of this. And one of the things that always comes to my mind is how much you have support from others in your organization. So, if you're pursuing something and there might be some trips and some failures along the way, if you're kind of the lone voice saying, "We need to do this."

After a point, people are going to be like, "Hey, just stop." But if it's a problem worth solving or something you really feel passionately about, how do you work with leaders or advise them as far as getting stakeholders on board? Helping to make sure that they've got the support and other people along the way who are jointly in effort to solve that problem and aren't just saying, "Well, you failed, we're done."

Danny Gandara:

That's absolutely fair. I would say you're hitting it right where you're talking about the problem rather than the idea or the solution. And it's about having that conversation with those stakeholders about the problem. Validate that the problem is indeed a problem worth solving with them.

Before you even go into any idea or how we can fix this problem, do they recognize that it's a problem? Get them to talk about it. And get them to focus on how it affects them and their teams, or they're a part of it, what value they might be able to derive from it.

But it goes more to that curiosity mode of understanding their stake in the problem space of it. I also like to interview when I'm talking to stakeholders, I'm asking more questions. So, I may focus the conversation on here's the problem that I want to solve that I think needs to be addressed.

But I also want to get their perspective on it. What do you think about this problem? Is this a problem for you? Have you seen members of your team experience this problem? And once they really go into that, then they're more likely to buy into whatever idea, whatever solution, or whatever you may be proposing.

Beth Almes:

I love that idea of getting their interviews on the problem space before you even launch into your solution or whatever that may be. So, in marketing we have a term of demand generation. And it feels like even internally in your organization, you're almost creating a demand for the solution that you're saying, "Isn't this a problem?"

Until they're at the point like, "Yeah, it is a problem, and now I can't rest until it's solved. However we end up solving it, I just can't live with it this way."

Danny Gandara:

I believe we call that product market fit.

Beth Almes:

Perfect. So, I'm wondering: It's one thing to be a person driving innovation, and maybe that's your job in some way. But it's also another thing to be the leader of a team and guiding other people through the innovation process. So, are there things that leaders can do to really coach their team differently with an innovation mindset or help to support their team as they're pursuing innovative projects?

Danny Gandara:

So, as a leader, how might you coach a team through an innovation?

Beth Almes:


Danny Gandara:

I would say start with providing autonomy and ownership. And that can feel very scary for leaders at times, especially when they want to see we have metrics that we need to maintain. It might be a service-level agreement that must be maintained at all times. We have goals that we need to hit.

We can't deviate from those. And so, they may have a tendency to withdraw ownership, whereas innovation begs the opposite. We need leaders to foster autonomy and ownership of ideas of the problem of these areas. And coaching through validation and reducing risk.

Go talk to the stakeholders and validate that your problem is a problem. How you might do that and reducing risk along the way. Because uncertainty is just the opposite of risk management that we've got here. The more you know, the less risk there's involved.

So, when everything is very ambiguous, start with a little step by getting some feedback, coach how to get that feedback. There's tons of innovation processes out there. For leaders, I would say pick one. There's double diamonds. That one's one of my favorite. Human-centered design.

That's one that I leaned to. There's various innovation processes out there and several wonderful resources that talk you through. But they all essentially say similar things. Be user-centric, fall in love with the problem, understand that space very well, explore the solution.

How many different ideas can you come up with that can answer that? Which ones are the ones that are most reasonable to pursue? Which ones are really going to hit most of the problem well enough?

And for a leader, it's coaching through that process. One thing we like to say in the design space is that it's iterative. It's flexible. You don't have to start at the beginning and work your way through. You can start anywhere. Go backward, go forward.

You can start with the solution, go back to the problem. You can start with the problem, understand the solution. As a leader, you identify where somebody might be in that process and coach them where it might make the most sense for them to go next. Are they coming to you with an idea? Great.

How do you understand that this is the idea to solve the problem? Have they put thought into the problem? They've come to you with a big problem. Oh, sorry, go ahead.

Beth Almes:

No, that's really interesting. Your thoughts here on applying a more solid structure to the innovation process. And again, even for those who are not in innovation-heavy job. Your job is not product innovation like yours is. But for those who might have innovation as a small part of what they are doing, how important do you think that structure is?

Because what I've commonly seen is kind of leaders say even in the best cases where they're not trying to squash innovation, but somebody comes to them with an idea and they say, "Cool, great. Go pursue it." And that's the last you hear of it.

So, how do you maybe apply a little bit more structure to that process, especially if it's more foreign to what you're used to doing? Do you have recommended ways that people start to actually go and do that or books they read, whatever?

Danny Gandara:

Yeah, tons of resources that you can help and provide in order to guide them. But some concrete actions I really like that leaders can employ; one is which we tell all good leaders to do is set clear goals and priorities. So, you're going to foster this project of innovation for one of your team members. Cool.

Help them in identifying what their goals and their priorities are for that. And with that, establish some regular check-ins. Saying, "Okay." So, that it doesn't fall on the wayside. On a weekly basis or every other week basis on your check-ins, talk about that.

In your one-on-ones, talk about it. How did you fail this week? What did you try out in order to push this idea forward? What did you learn? What feedback did you get? And where are you going as a result of it?

Also, we live in an agile world now, so implementing some agile methodologies where you're constantly iterating. So, what's the smallest idea that you can test? Especially if you're new to this, you want to try to get to a quick win. The quick win not being that your idea is successful.

The quick win is that you've tested your idea. You've tested your process. So, what's the fastest way that you can test an assumption that's behind your idea that helps drive it forward? And how can you help keep that accountability for your team members to be able to say, "Okay, go pursue it."

In a week, let's talk about what you learned. Let's talk about whether your assumption had ground or not. Which also goes into another concrete practice, time blocking. Giving dedicated time, I think maybe 10%. In a 40-hour work week, that's four hours. An hour a day pretty much where they can focus on just driving this forward.

Beth Almes:

And that feels very, I think motivating for a lot of employees or who are excited about it. I love the laser focus on goals. What are we trying to accomplish? And it seems simplistic in all honesty. But I would say in practice it's one of the things that can so often kind of get off track.

And maybe that's from me. I work with a lot of really creative people and there's no shortage of ideas of always, wouldn't it be cool if? But I love your focus on focusing on those goals of like, okay, and if we did that, what might we expect or what might the result be? And it may or may not be that.

But keeping that focus on, we're going to rebrand this. We're going to try something different. But what's the eventual goal of that? What do we think will happen and how could we test that is such valuable advice.

So, I do want to ask a question that as we wrap up our focus on innovation that I ask, it's a question I ask all of our guests on the show, can you share with me a moment of leadership, innovative or not, that really changed your life? So, something that might've made you say either for good or for bad, "I want to lead more like this." Or, "Gosh, I'd never want to be that kind of leader." Just a moment of leadership that changed you.

Danny Gandara:

Empathy really is what comes to mind here. I'm thinking about a leader who was very new towards the innovation process. Their team members came with several ideas. The long and short of it was that two of these team members couldn't see eye to eye on an idea.

What was ironic in this situation was that they actually had the same idea. They were just communicating it very differently. It was the same concept. That leader really had to take a step back and hear each person's point of view and get them to open it up.

There was a lot of emotion involved, I will say that. There were tears. People fall in love with their ideas. We tell them, "Don't fall in love with your idea." But it's hard to live that. And these two were so passionate about their idea that there were tears, they were crying, they were going back and forth.

And this leader handled it so well to be able to give them the space to feel heard, to move past the prior conflicts that they had had to both be able to put their thoughts and ideas out in the table. This leader reframed what they were trying to say. And it's like, "So, it sounds like what y'all are saying is this is the way we need to move forward."

"Yes, exactly. That is it." They both nod at the same time. That was very powerful. So, being a good leader and leading with empathy gave those two individuals the psychological safety that they needed in order to be able to completely let their guard down, to completely let the walls down, be emotional, and move towards a better outcome.

Beth Almes:

That story is really quite moving. And I think it brings to the forefront the fact that when it comes to innovation and ideas, the passion people feel around this and how it can dramatically change the way they view their work. Because these ideas, it's like their babies, their children. And it's risky to put them out there.

And so, you feel so personally involved. And if someone doesn't like your idea, you might feel personally attacked and just really terrible. But I love that story about how a leader can change that entire feeling around how they're approaching their work. What a great story. Thank you for sharing.

Danny Gandara:

Thank you so much.

Beth Almes:

All right, well, Danny, thank you so much for being here today on the Leadership 480 podcast. And thank you to our listeners who took part of their 480 minutes to be with us today. And remember to make every moment of leadership count.

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