Lead to Win: Innovation

February 25, 2016 | Lexy Thompson and Bill Gardner | HCI
Share This

The unfortunate truth of leadership. 

So often a leader will unknowingly make the shift from playing to win, to playing not to lose. Go back to the first day of your current leadership role, the excitement, the possibilities and how you were going to set the world on fire, or at least your team. You came in, took some time to learn the lay of the land, got to know what motivated each team member and became clear on expectations that were in front of you and your team.  You were in it to win it. 

Now come back to where you are today. 

  • Are you still playing to win? 
  • Have the organizational constraints, rules of engagement and market conditions sobered you up? 

The cost and reality of shifting from “play to win” to “play not to lose” is subtle. We will be exploring the impact of this shift in leadership on innovation, communication, change and sustainability in a four-part series. Today we’ll focus on innovation.

The role of your mental models.

Your experiences and your interpretation of those experiences slowly and subtly lead to beliefs and assumptions, or mental models, that then drive your behavior. 

Those mental models may be driving you to play not to lose instead of playing to win.  We will present some “playing not to lose” mental models, as well as their antithesis “playing to win”, mental models for your reflection in each of the four areas mentioned above.  

The impact of playing not to lose.

Years ago, a high tech company, AMD, had a technology lead over their competitor, Intel. Intel dominated more than 80 percent of the global microprocessor market and was much larger than AMD.  AMD’s smaller more agile design team had a superior solution that ran faster, cooler, more energy efficient, was smaller and much less expensive to purchase.  The product was designed for large servers so the price would provide lower costs to acquire and every year much lower costs to operate because of the energy efficiency. 

The cost savings alone would have justified purchasing the AMD product, but throwing in superior speed and performance made the purchase a no-brainer.

However, IT executives would not buy the AMD processor even though they acknowledged the superiority of the product.

The AMD Sales team suspected foul play until a Technology Market Analyst delivered a key note at the Annual Sales Conference.  He explained,

“If the IT Executives go with Intel and there are problems later, no one will get fired because they went with the big guys. Their colleagues would be surprised and Intel’s brand may take a hit, but the IT executive would keep their job. On the other hand, if they go with AMD and save lots of money, they MIGHT get acknowledged but if there is a problem, that IT executive will get fired because they went with a secondary player.  The upside (winning – saving money, having superior performance) is not enough to offset the downside (losing their job and looking like an idiot).”

This tendency to play it safe, or play not to lose, can destroy innovation on your team and inside your organization.

Innovation is important. 

The most recent information (2015) shows that when CEOs are asked what keeps them up at night, “innovation” appears in every list (R&D spending for innovation [Price-Waterhouse]; disruptive innovation in the markets we serve [Washington Post]; innovative talent acquisition, development, and utilization [Harvard Business Review].)

Part of a leader’s role is to inspire innovation. 

  • Do you? 
  • Is your team as innovative as they need to be to keep up in the fast paced business world of today? 
  • How about in the much faster, even more information intensive business environment five years from now? 

Regardless of what function you manage/lead and where you are in the organization, greater success can come from innovation.

With that in mind, what could possibly be blocking your team’s innovation? A strong possibility is your mental models about innovation. 

Each of us comes to a set of mental models through experience and interpretation of that experience, so only you can say why you believe as you do. Examine the list below to see if you have beliefs that can lead to playing not to lose.

Playing to Not Lose Mental Model

Playing to Win Reality

Innovation comes from one great creative mind, none of my employees are creative.


Most innovation comes from the collective efforts of a team.  A team’s innovative capability rises with its diversity, but any team under the right leadership and circumstances is capable of innovation.

To create the environment for innovation, I must give up control; giving up control leads to failure.


While it is true that loosening control can free up teams to be more innovative, it is not true that all control must be “given up”. Control what you have to, set parameters and push yourself out of your comfort zone to give up more control than usual.

Innovative ideas are born fully developed and recognizable at first glance.


Innovative outcomes come from crazy, out-of-the-box ideas that get built upon and discussed into workable solutions.

An idea that can’t stand up to criticism should be dropped immediately.


Innovative ideas are initially like a new born baby that needs to be nurtured and celebrated until mature enough to bring in criticism and discussion of nuance.

Innovation must be disruptive to be legitimately called innovation.


Innovation can happen every day in mundane ways or magnificent disruptions. Lead your team to think about innovative ways to do their individual jobs and the mindset will start to take hold, and small innovations will begin to add up.

The only way to get innovation is to create a centralized think tank or innovation center and make them responsible for innovation.


Actually, though creating a group responsible for innovation will generate more innovation, much more can be generated when every employee on every team sees innovation as part of their responsibility.


There are many ways to learn about generating more innovation from your team. The learning starts with understanding your mental models about innovation. 

Are you in it to win it or when it comes to innovation, are you playing it safe, low risk and not to lose?



 - Lexy Thomspon and Bill Gardner