In the last 25 years, innovation has created giant new industries—just think of the internet—and transformed nearly every field of human endeavor, from the arts and health care to education and government.
But for every successful example of innovation, there are numerous failures. In a 2015 CCL survey of senior executives, 94% said innovation is important, but just 14% told us their organizations are effective at it.
Before we get into how leaders drive innovation successfully, it’s useful to consider what we mean by innovation.
Many of us probably associate the term “innovation” with game-changing disruptions of existing industries or the creation of new industries, like the way iTunes helped create a whole new way to sell and distribute music.
But research by the Smith Brain Trust suggests that these high-impact, dramatic innovations are relatively rare. Though worthy of pursuit, they’re very difficult to achieve.
What’s more common is “continuous innovation.” Continuous innovation consists of smaller, more frequent innovations. These lead to smaller gains, but more reliably advance a company over time. Consider the way iTunes later added movies, television, and other media.
Focusing on continuous innovation has significant advantages over concentrating solely on the big, disruptive innovations. Continuous innovation:
- Strengthens an organization’s “innovation muscles.” Simply put, it builds an organization’s capacity to carry out innovation.
- Moves you forward as an organization. By placing a series of smaller bets on continuous innovation, a business can more reliably make progress in growing market share, developing new products and services, and finding ways to be more efficient.
- Build momentum toward disruptive innovation. Finally, continuous innovation can provide the stepping stones that lead—at least sometimes—to those industry-shaking disruptions that so many companies aspire towards.
Driving innovation, as with many strategic activities, comes down to leadership. Enterprise leaders who want to drive innovation in their organizations must understand:
- How to set and communicate clear innovation goals that are ambitious yet achievable.
- Innovation is a team effort.
- Innovation does not happen in a silo.
- How to balance the tension between managing the day-to-day while driving for improvement and reinvention.
Individual Innovation Leadership
Individual leaders tasked with leading innovation efforts—either because that’s a part of their role or because they’re responsible for the day-to-day management of a specific innovation project—will have different leadership challenges.
Why? Because leading innovation is distinctly different than leading ongoing business operations. Innovation is different in 4 critical ways:
- Not only are outcomes uncertain, but the entire context of the innovation process is uncertain. Leaders can’t be sure if innovators are even pursuing the right general ideas.
- It is high profile. Typically, innovation efforts are among the most visible in the entire organization.
- Innovation is risky and failures are common, even likely. There can be dramatic ups and downs over the course of an innovation project, too.
- It is uncharted territory. Innovators are unable to follow an established path in their work. They don’t know where the road will take them, how long it will take to get there, or even how valuable their destination may be.
For those involved in the day-to-day work of innovation, these differences mean their work takes a greater emotional toll than work in ongoing operations does. To sustain their innovation efforts over long periods of time and take the risks necessary for successful innovation, leaders must provide greater emotional support to their innovation teams.
3 Innovation Leadership Imperatives
To understand this emotional support, we conducted interviews with individuals who have a track record of managing multiple successful innovation projects and their bosses. Based on these interviews, we discerned 3 leadership imperatives that provide the essential emotional support that innovators need:
They demonstrate trust to empower.
Those involved in the day-to-day work need to know that their leaders trust their talents, their efforts, and the decisions they are making. That demonstrated trust allows innovators to trust themselves amidst the inherent ambiguity of their work.
They keep purpose front-and-center to motivate and inspire.
Effective leaders keep the attention of their direct reports focused on the benefits that can ultimately come from the innovation project. It’s easy for innovators to lose the horizon, and therefore motivation. Those doing the innovation work need to know that what they’re doing is important and valuable.
They act as equal partners to share the risk and the outcome.
In innovation, no one knows the answers, and no one can be sure of the right direction, so the traditional hierarchical leader-follower relationship is not as helpful. Good innovation leaders, when appropriate, are willing and able to sit with their innovation teams as equals and contribute to the effort not as the boss, but as a member of the team. Being an equal partner also demonstrates the boss’ commitment to innovation. This way, they share the risk and the outcome so that the people driving innovation aren’t in it alone.
To learn more about how these 3 imperatives of innovation leadership play out on a day-to-day basis, download our white paper on “The 3 Crucial Behaviors for Successfully Leading Innovation.”