In innovation leadership, you don’t need to be the most creative person in the organisation, or the most innovative member of the team. There are far more important qualities needed to be a successful innovation leader. You need to be an innovation expert - to be able to inspire, enable and facilitate innovation in those around you.
Do these comments sound familiar?
Why do some organisations seem to be able to push the boundaries of what is possible in search of a better future and some are not? It is not enough to just create new ideas you need someone to take charge and make them become reality. This is the job of an innovation leader.
Thanks to our work with innovation leaders at large enterprises and public sector organisations, we've identified the key innovation leadership characteristics that are essential for the role. Titles and job descriptions vary of course from company to company but we've found these innovation leadership competencies to be remarkably consistent between those being successful in different innovation leader jobs. Here's our top 6:
You need to be naturally curious with the passion to discover and learn about new things. You need to welcome surprises because surprises can indicate that something that you used to believe or take for granted is perhaps not so. These discoveries are the main cause of innovations. The curious seek to overturn facts that are not really facts, but merely mistaken assumptions.
You have the habit of asking questions. It's a fundamental form of interaction that provokes learning. A question asked the right way at the right time opens a door in a person’s mind. Questioning enables people to view issues differently and see things they have not seen or understood. The capacity to frame and ask great questions is one of the most important skills that innovation leaders can actively develop.
Organisation has been successfully been managed to the current level of success and your job is to create new management skills that support innovation. The goal is to transform the organisation to be more adaptive to external changes and to be more significant player in the current and the future markets. You need to develop an innovation management system for your organisation and at the same time put your efforts into specific innovation projects. You need to balance the short term and long-term perspective, as well as risk and reward, and the differences related to incremental and breakthrough thinking.
As an innovation leader you spend a lot of time as a facilitator. Your role is to help individuals and teams find the best solutions to complex problems. You push and pull. You expect a great thing to happen and demand that individual and teams raise their performance to meet those expectations. When pushing isn’t going to help, you patiently encourage and inspire people to search for the right questions and solutions.
However the most important skill is empathy, the capacity to understand what others are feeling and thinking and to engage them the right way. The skill to listen effectively, and to set aside one’s own judgment in order to understand what’s going on in the minds of others. This is important because most innovation is driven by the need to understand exactly what others are feeling, whether they are colleagues, customers or partners.
Your job is to oversee elegant solutions to complex problems. You are the guiding hand behind the transformation of observations and insights into useful concepts and objects. You have the ability to think through options and possibilities, to support the best solutions and to help realise them. This is innovation leadership by example.
Innovation management is not a separate identity within an organisation. Innovation is not located at a head office or in the job of senior management. I am not even sure there is just a thing as innovation that can be managed.
At the end of the day, you are managing business by making it more flexible and adaptive to changes. The results of your work are business results. You need to keep your door open and be highly visible throughout the organisation. People need to feel comfortable when approaching you to share their ideas and seek guidance. So much of what you need to accomplish is not a matter of what you can do on your own, but rather what others will contribute through their participation.
Personally, I am drawn to strong innovation leadership characters that have been able to build mutual trust and effectively balance risk, while being persuasive enough to affect their followers, target audience and society as a whole. I grew up watching Branson and Mandela's unique brands of leadership and I have long been an avid follower of Musk and his ability to balance risk. I am also drawn to innovation leader characters, like Lego's Jørgen Vig Knudstorp, who has been able to combine massive cultural change with product, service and partnership innovations.