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4 Steps to Innovation Every Leader Needs to Follow

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Innovation and leadership go hand in hand.

Without innovation an organization will stagnate and without strong leadership innovation withers. This linkage is deftly made in the following quote attributed to Steve Jobs, "Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower."

There are at least four overlapping principles of innovation that every leader needs to know to ensure their continued success and that of their organization. The following principles were derived from my experience with the first product I ever developed as a teenager almost 30 years ago.

1. Inspiration.

The first product I ever invented was a portable sports sling that could carry a wide variety of bulky, unwieldy sports gear. The inspiration came to me in high school while waiting in line for a lift ticket at a local ski resort. When I got to the counter I dropped my skis and poles while fumbling for my wallet to pay for the ticket.

I didn't have the extra cash for an expensive ski bag or any number of existing carrying options. Also, I didn't want to pay a locker fee to store the large ski bag or carry-device while I skied. I needed a durable, portable solution that could carry the gear yet fit easily and safely in a coat pocket when not in use.

The inspiration for my invention was a frustrating problem. Starting from a point of pain is a great place to start for any innovation quest.

Related: 12 Ways to Find Inspiration

2. Identification.

As a teenager I didn't have the resources or knowledge to assemble a team and brainstorm a solution to my problem. I had to rely on my own observational and problem solving skills. One day I saw a lacrosse player from another school carrying his stick across the top of his school duffel bag with one of the bag handles looped inside the other, cinching the stick firmly in place.

I saw that and realized that my problem carrying bulky ski equipment could be solved with a modified single loop of webbing material that provided the utility of the duffel bag handles without the need for the bag itself. The solution I envisioned had no plastic buckles to break, sketchy zippers or unreliable snaps. The solution was simple, elegant and obvious, but only because I was vigilant and conditioned to look for such a solution to my problem.

Related: 4 Reasons Entrepreneurs Should Work With Up-and-Coming Talent

3. Execution.

Even though I knew what I wanted and had a working prototype in a few days, it took a lot of time and research to transform the idea into a business.

This was prior to the ubiquity of the Internet, so I spent hours at the local college library boning up on intellectual property rights, marketing, retail distribution, contract production and assemblage, demographic research, product liability insurance, packaging design and a host of other necessary considerations for running a business.

In my early 20s I had five thousand units produced. However, retailers were not interested in carrying the product because the price point was so low -- less than $10 -- and I only had the single product at the time. Also, a few store managers told me that they didn't like how durable the product was because a customer who bought one woulnd't need another for many years. Needless to say, I had failed to do much research on planned obsolescence. Oh, well.

Over the next few years I was able to move most of my inventory via print catalog sales, sampling at ski resorts and direct sales at college campuses and festivals. I finally exited the business when my insurance provider stopped offering the product liability insurance I needed.

Regardless, it was a tremendous entrepreneurial experiment that drove me to pursue my MBA degree and a career in business.

4. Repetition.

Over the years I've had several side businesses. Some were successful, others not so much but they all followed the formula of inspiration, identification and execution. The consistent repetition of that model has been a key driver of my development as a leader, entrepreneur and innovator in my own career. 

Innovation can occur anywhere along this loose continuum. For their sake and that of the organization, it's important for leaders to be ever vigilant for innovation insights so they don't miss the opportunity.

Related: For a Winning Product Launch, Address Genuine Customer Needs