What Successful Innovators Must—and Must Not—Assume

You are probably familiar with the old warning about what kind of animal you turn into when you make assumptions. The problem is that, when it comes to innovation, it’s only partly right.

If you’re endeavoring to lead your organization through significant change, there are some things you absolutely must assume, and there are some things you simply must not assume.

Having spoken with hundreds of leaders over the past few years, I know of few who do not see the need for innovation in their organizations.

How successful they are depends in large part on what they assume, because that one word has two related but very different meanings.

To “assume” can mean to take something up and implement it: “To assume your place in the family business.” It can also mean to hold a view for which there is no proof: “To assume there is enough ice cream for the whole family.”

The first thing we must do as leaders when approaching innovation is to make it an organizational priority. To assume a posture of innovation is critical to changing our organizational cultures and creating space for creativity and new thinking.

But we must also be careful not to assume things about our programs, products or services that have kept us from being innovative in the past.

How do you accomplish this YES and NO of assumptions within your organization? Here are six key challenges to help you embrace the YES and also be disciplined in your NOs.


  1. A culture of lifelong learning. No organization can be innovative if it cannot also be supportive of learning together.
  2. A posture that welcomes healthy feedback. An innovative organization has healthy ways to give input to the new ideas being considered.
  3. A mindset of integrated thinking. Twenty-first-century innovation will come from people breaking down silos and building up dynamic connections between disciplines and departments within your organization.



  1. That you are innovative. Don’t let talk or window dressing fool you. If your organization claims to be innovative, test that assumption with some of the items in the “Do” list and see if it is true.
  2. That you know your customer. Those we serve are always changing; even more in times of uncertainty, as we live in now. That means that what we think we know about our customers is probably wrong and needs to be re-examined.
  3. That you know on which area to focus your innovation efforts. So many times, we think we know where innovation is needed. But we might be surprised with what our staff, partners and customers think needs innovation if we were to ask them for their assessment.

Greg Satell, author of Mapping Innovation, says, “Innovation is always a balancing act of staying true to your vision and re-examining your assumptions.” The challenge is to assume our role as innovators within the space where we serve while being careful not to assume we know how we should go about it.

If you were to ask most CEOs and founders, they could probably point to the innovation that launched the vision for their organization—but they likely haven’t always been able to keep that innovative approach alive as their organizations grew.

Our challenge today within existing organizations is to find that original innovative vision, stay true to it, and ruthlessly challenge assumptions as we seek to implement  innovations for a new day.

It is with that vision in mind that I have organized “Developing a Culture of Innovation,” a live web event to be held on April 20 to help organizational staff consider how to be innovative as they are on mission. To register for the 90-minute program visit www.innovationinmission.com.


With over 20 years of innovation work in the nonprofit sector, Jon Hirst has participated in multiple startups, turnarounds and program launches. Jon most recently served as CEO of GMI (Global Mapping International) and co-owns Generous Mind LLC with his wife Mindy.