Driving innovation is complex. So are organizations. Add them together and the challenge becomes more mind-boggling than an eight-sided Rubik’s cube.

How do you know where to focus your innovation leadership development efforts so that you and your organization have the capacity you need? It becomes easier to diagnose areas needing attention when you tease apart several elements of innovation, specifically: 1) process, 2) context, 3) output and 4) people (Rhodes, 1961; Vehar, 2008). This is the first of four posts that will focus on each one of these areas. Let’s start with (drumroll please):


Process describes the way that innovation happens in your organization, whether it’s a system, a procedure, a Standard Operating Procedure, an accepted practice, or any other way that things get done (or are supposed to get done – sometimes innovation happens ad hoc or in non-sanctioned ways). Many organizations put in place organization-wide stage-gate processes and by doing so, think that they can check “innovation” off of the to-do list. If only it were that easy. While stage-gate has its passionate advocates and equally those who find it destructive to innovation, suffice it to say that it’s not enough. Stage-gate is a tool or process that serves as a (sometimes) useful way to track and govern projects.

There are many processes that can be used to drive innovation at the individual, group, organizational and even societal levels. Having a deliberate process (such as design thinking, creative problem solving, TRIZ, etc.) ensures people have a useful framework and common language they can align around. They avoid unproductive arguments about how to get the work done so they can focus on getting the work done.

While there are many processes directly targeted at innovation, there are also others that enable innovation by allowing people to work together more effectively, which in our experience is a big challenge. Two fresh examples include:

  • Boundary Spanning LeadershipThis new body of work from the Center for Creative Leadership has as its ultimate goal “Discovering New Frontiers.” It provides targeted processes to help people work together across the natural barriers that occur inside and outside organizations (e.g. hierarchy, functional silos, geography, demographic differences and stakeholder differences) (Ernst & Chrobot-Mason, 2011). 
  • Polarity ManagementThis approach helps people determine how to manage issues that don’t have fixed solutions – like whether it’s better to be centralized or decentralized, whether to focus on continuous improvement or innovation. The question is not “which is the best,” but rather what’s the process the organization can use to make the work more effective and efficient for the given situation, and how to know when the pendulum has swung too far in one direction or the other (Johnson, 1996).

And of course there are many more processes that are overtly targeted towards innovation and that enable it.

What are the ones that you swear by and why?

Source:  “Becoming a Leader Who Fosters Innovation” white paper, by David Magellan Horth and Jonathan Vehar

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