Many companies today are worried they don’t have the right leadership to succeed in the digital and disruptive age. Maybe they’ve got it all wrong.

What if they actually have the right leaders—but they’re being held hostage by the same old expectations, metrics, and rewards?

Here’s the problem. The very nature of business is continually evolving. Consumer needs fluctuate. Technology keeps shortening the lifespan of products and organizations. Even the strongest companies can’t afford to coast on past successes or be content to do things the way they’ve always been done.

If leaders don’t keep pace with the change, they run the risk of unknowingly undermining the innovation within their organizations.

I’ve seen it over and over again. Highly trained leaders with strong track records start to rely on habits and practices that served them well in the past but won’t take them into the future. They get stuck on the status quo. I realize that letting go of these familiar behaviors is a big shift, but it’s absolutely necessary.

Here are three ways leaders may be inadvertently putting a damper on innovation:

1. They never press “pause.”

Humans have a bias toward taking action versus standing still—and that’s especially true of leaders. We’re wired to produce and don’t feel valuable unless we’re doing something. Being crazy-busy–running to meetings, dashing off emails–is the norm. When’s the last time you dove into some big-picture thinking, like trying to connect the dots between a recent innovation and what it means for your business? Or does even pondering that idea make you think, “Who has that kind of time on their hands?”

Researchers Francesca Gino and Brad Staats have found that “people feel more productive when they are executing tasks rather than when they are planning them. Especially when under time pressure, they perceived planning as a waste of time—even if it actually leads to better performance than jumping into the task head-first.”

In contrast, businesses that innovate and survive disruption need leaders who think about tomorrow’s challenges and opportunities. Innovative leaders create space for curiosity and always long to know more. If you are constantly “doing,” you can’t learn new information, explore your mistakes or setbacks, think about limitations, or get a sense of the big picture.

Taking some time each day to shut out all the noise and busyness can make us smarter and more imaginative. Establishing this habit requires work if you’re used to always being “on.” But it has powerful results.

2. They over-rely on experience.

It’s true: your experiences have taught you a lot. But they can also get in the way of new thinking. It’s easier and less time-consuming to fall back on what’s worked before instead of exploring others’ perspectives or researching how other industries have pivoted or reinvented.

It also feels less risky than trying something new. Today, though, the real risk to your business is not accepting that constant change—which requires constant innovation—is a new fact of life. Naturally, innovative leaders draw insight from their experiences, but they also embrace “a faster, agile, flexible mindset to explore and exploit new opportunities.”

3. They only look backward.

The “post-mortem” is standard practice at many businesses. And there’s definitely value in spending some time after a transformation to assess the outcome. Most of the time, though, these sessions focus on what went wrong, what didn’t work, or what to do differently next time. I’ve found through consulting with companies of all sizes that it’s more beneficial for leaders to conduct appreciative inquiries before a project begins.

Appreciative inquiries focus on what has gone right with past projects. They look at specific achievements, potential innovations, and high points. Instead of constructive criticism and “what went wrong” diagnoses, there are positive discoveries and unencumbered possibilities. They set the stage for the right state of mind, an upbeat focus and high energy, so that teams can capitalize on winning experiences and explore powerful potentials. The more confident team members feel going into a project, the more powerful, in control, and effective they can be.

Questions during an appreciative inquiry sound like this:

·      What went right here and why do you think it worked?

·      What can we learn from what happened (positive outcomes only), and what are the possibilities now?

·      Which of our methods or processes worked particularly well? Can we replicate those for the upcoming initiative?

·      What is the next level of thinking we need to do?

We all know that change is essential for companies today, but it’s important to remember that leaders can either fan the flames of innovation—or extinguish them. Recognize that the old rules may no longer apply.

If you’ve been hanging on to whatever worked before, it’s time to let go. Welcome in the fresh thinking and creativity that have the potential to take your company to the next level.

For more information about this topic, I invite you to take my “Transition from Manager to Leader” course on Lynda.com.