Leading innovation is different because innovation is unpredictable. Traditional leadership behaviors were developed largely to produce excellence in the relatively predictable context of operations.

An organization can frequently look at its own history, industry case studies, competitor behavior, and benchmarking data to understand existing operations. But our research on innovation reveals that leading it is markedly different, in large part because those operational guardrails simply don’t exist.

In prior research on the differences between organizations that innovate successfully and those that don’t, we outlined 5 key organizational differences. They are:

  • Leaders who support innovation.
  • A culture that supports innovation.
  • Having a formal innovation strategy.
  • A budget allocated for innovation.
  • A clear direction for their innovation efforts.

This white paper primarily focuses on the first of these 5 differences.

To better understand how leaders can successfully support innovation, we interviewed people on the frontlines of innovation work and their bosses. We looked closely at the interactions between bosses and those responsible for driving innovation, investigating which boss behaviors encouraged their direct reports and which discouraged them. Our interview subjects came from various industries, and all had been involved in multiple, successful initiative projects.

From those interviews, we’ve identified the critical leadership behaviors exhibited during successful innovation efforts, as well as behaviors that worked against innovation. The lessons from these interviews are broadly applicable to managers at multiple levels. But we are especially focused on the leaders charged with overseeing innovation projects — often in addition to other responsibilities — and those working on and directing innovation projects on a day-to-day basis.

We discovered that the way leaders support and relate to innovators is different than how leaders relate to operationally focused subordinates.

3 Crucial Leader Behaviors for Innovation:

1. The leader demonstrates trust in the follower.
2. The leader keeps the purpose of the initiative front and center.
3. The leader is an equal partner in the effort.

innovation white paper graphicBased on our interviews with leaders and innovation managers, all 3 of these behaviors are critical in providing the emotional support required for successful innovation.

While trust and purpose are often components of good leadership, as is partnership, these “softer” leadership competencies are more important in the risky, uncertain context of innovation. Innovation managers and their teams will be at their most effective when they feel confident in their own ability to experiment, take risks and, as Apple phrased it in a famous ad campaign, “Think different.”

To learn more about how leaders can best support and promote innovation, download the full article below or check out this podcast with the author.

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