Strategy and Leadership for Innovation: Making it Real, Urgent, and Attainable

Creating a reliable capability for innovation requires that a number of factors be addressed and aligned. This article addresses strategy and leadership, but equally important are culture, process, roles, skills, etc. Our prior article lays out an eight-element framework outlining each of these key factors. To assess your organization’s innovation capability across these dimensions, and receive a customizable report comparing your responses to others, click here.

Many of the well-mined leadership aphorisms apply to successful innovation leadership:

  • Setting and communicating a strong vision around innovation and its importance to the organization
  • Actively promoting innovation through words (stories are great here) and actions
  • Setting strategic objectives for innovation
  • Establishing clear and measured expectations around innovation
  • Making one senior leader accountable for innovation, while at the same time outlining everyone’s role and involvement

Smart leaders exercise these good practices; the best innovation leaders also understand and apply the less intuitive concepts below.

Recognize that behavior change is an outcome, not a cause, of improved performance. Of all the factors affecting innovation (any change effort, for that matter), culture is often cited as the most pernicious when it comes to controllability. Since culture is a result of a myriad of drivers affecting organizational behavior, only altering those drivers will effect a change in behavior. Yet somehow, we fall back on the seemingly easy (but ineffective) alternative of pronouncing, “Starting Monday, we all need to think and behave in a more innovative manner.” Instead, focus on bottom-line innovation results: a win, a cool experiment, a business metric on innovation. Share those stories, and ask for more.

Demand results, not activity. As with anything else, innovation can fall into the trap of activity over results. Things that arenot innovation include: a survey of your organization’s innovativeness, training on how to be more innovative, a powerpoint with innovation recommendations, or an assessment or plan or model or design. Those are actually costs – and in the beginning, they are not a prerequisite to getting results. Start with smaller wins and task people with accomplishing specified innovations, then only later start to layer in some of the infrastructure to achieve scale.

Evaluate innovation opportunities from a “portfolio perspective.” Successful organizations spread their bets among a portfolio of innovation initiatives, ensuring balance across such dimensions as risk, originality, cost, and impact. And they keep an eye on their pipeline to ensure an adequate flow through stages such as concept, feasibility, development, and implementation. A wide variety of portfolio management tools are available, ranging from spreadsheets with charts and graphs to full-fledged enterprise systems with workflow and modeling capabilities. But even the simple approach can move innovation from an executive pronouncement to a reliable management practice.

Tap into existing energy and motivation. All organizations have a latent capacity for action that often appears only when there is a crisis or temporal opportunity with high visibility and a clear deadline. “Well, we had five days to accomplish something that would normally take five months, but we all pulled together and did it; I’ll never forget the intensity and great teamwork.” Why not tap into such capacity for your innovation efforts? Sizeable organizations have lists of high potentials looking for an opportunity to excel – and leaders need to see them in action. Challenge them with your innovation projects, and at the same time contribute to their development as future leaders who can achieve real results.

To move innovation off the starting line, leaders must focus on concrete activities that shake off the dust and begin to exercise the organization’s capability. Over time, those early successes can be corralled into a more systemic capability, with formal goals, roles, and processes. Subsequent articles in this series will address those additional organizational elements.

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