Innovation is all about envisioning possibilities beyond what is visible. Innovation seeks to make improvements, whether incremental or disruptive. 

It requires understanding a problem statement and finding solutions that nobody else has looked at. Innovation is also about taking risks and trying something new. 

It is a collaborative affair that commences from idea, through development to implementation. 

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However, in corporate settings, the notion of a lone innovator simply doesn’t exist. Driving innovation helps set the tone for the environment for a group of innovators to operate efficiently.

What is innovation leadership and why is it important?

Organisational innovation leadership revolves around the ability to inspire productive action in others during times of creation, invention, uncertainty, and risk. It is a necessary capability for organisations that seek to develop truly innovative products and services. 

For the most part, it involves applying different management techniques that focus on fostering creativity, competency, and collaboration within a workplace.

It also guides and inspires employees to develop the skills they need to improve the organisation’s innovation performance. For example, in the production of strategically aligned ideas that can mould a company’s present and future success.

Innovation leadership is of critical importance to every company because successful innovation starts with ideation— the stage where outstanding ideas are conceptualised as the foundation of innovation success.

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Given how leadership impacts the productivity and efficiency of employees, innovation leadership goes beyond traditional management as innovative leaders are open to suggestions, and offer constructive feedback. Thus, practising and fostering an innovation culture.

Typically, innovation leaders merge proven methodologies to increase the knowledge, engagement, and skills of their teams to enhance their organisation’s innovation performance. 

They are usually smart at making decisions, especially when the organisation’s innovation efforts are at stake. They carefully plan and study every step of their innovation process, and then provide the resources their team needs to bring innovative ideas to life.

Innovative business leaders also tend to consider current trends when formulating significant strategies for an organisation’s future products and services while reinforcing changes that are required for an organisation to thrive in its respective industry.

Innovation leadership characteristics 

Promotes creativity

A good innovation leader understands that great results require creativity to happen. As such, management that practices innovation leadership typically goes beyond solutions that are conventionally practised by many.

They rise above traditional boundaries and motivate their employees to pursue ambitious ideas. They also inspire employees to explore new perspectives and facilitate them to discuss them extensively. 

Since leadership focuses on innovation, they allow their subordinates to navigate their creative aspects by setting up idea challenges and competitions that may stimulate creative processes and teamwork.

Offers constructive feedback

In scenarios where team members conceptualise new ideas, innovation managers are usually open to discussing their concepts even further to determine if they are feasible, or can be implemented effectively. They also typically provide truthful insight and specific, and actionable feedback.

In turn, they are receptive to honest opinions and understand that the readiness to accept feedback is critical in solving issues that may hinder the innovation performance of the business. They also believe that the thoughts of their subordinates matter and that giving and receiving feedback is a major component of an organisation’s long-term success.

Willing to take risks (+ Understands which ones are worth taking)

Innovation is synonymous with free-flowing creativity but involves a great deal of risk. Competent innovation leaders usually have a high-risk tolerance, and consider all possible eventualities to ensure that well-calculated bets often pay off. And realistic innovation managers are aware that free-flowing creativity comes with several risks. 

As such, they are usually very cautious and meticulous in examining and studying every possible angle that comes with a situation. They also comprehend that progress involves inherent risks, but these risks also serve as unique opportunities to learn more about their industry. 

Generally, great innovation leaders assess every possible setback beforehand and readily prepare to address all of them.

Encouraging out of box thinking

Disruptive innovations aren’t always made by lone geniuses. Creative insights typically come from intelligent and non-judgmental sharing of ideas that can give rise to continual innovation that propels an organisation to greater heights. 

So, an effective innovation leader supports the process of collaborative enquiry while also encouraging open dialogue between a team of innovators. They also have the inclination to jump into the action, actively participate, and enjoy the exhilaration of leading change that leads to innovation.

Paying attention to details

Innovation managers know that even the tiniest details matter when implementing innovation projects. This is because the smallest of mistakes can negatively impact the success of an innovation process. 

On the other hand, taking accurate baby steps can significantly help them do things right.

Overall, tasks performed without attention to detail result in ineffectiveness. And employees that aren’t keen on picking up information or timelines can easily damage a company’s innovation portfolio. When this occurs, time and resources are lost. 

Therefore, innovation leaders prefer to do things right the first time by having an extensive and comprehensive view of the entire project. They typically stay task-oriented, time-driven, and accountable to achieve projects on time.

Willing to create an innovative culture

Competent innovation managers internalise innovation as an attitude. They typically like to cultivate innovation as an ordinary part of an organisation’s daily processes. As a result, they encourage employees to generate and gather ideas that can trigger revolutionary changes.

Furthermore, they also prioritise a culture of continuous innovation and improvement and believe the best innovations come from organisations that are inclusive regardless of race, fortes, experiences, and background.

They also appoint innovation committees with disparate roles and responsibilities to implement a systematic innovation workflow. 

Lastly, effective innovation leadership persuades teams to collaborate to achieve success by consistently engaging in the innovation activities of the enterprise.

Offer rewards and appreciation

Effective innovation leaders tend to establish an effective reward system that encourages employee participation. Innovation doesn’t have to be only about proactive innovation, but can also be reactive. 

In other words, it sets targets and challenges to give the team an objective to work towards and attaches a reward. However, it’s imperative to avoid only recognising short-term performance and considering the broader need for rewards.

Innovation leadership in workplace: skills

Encourage experimentation 

Reduce barriers to experimentation and make it easier for your team to explore new concepts. You can do this by curating idea challenges and allowing them to trial their ideas, even on a small scale.

Emphasise teamwork

Put emphasis on the importance of teamwork and inspire your employees to share their opinions, no matter how contradicting their thoughts may be. Sometimes creative conflicts help you see the pros and the cons of bringing concepts to life.

Establish psychological safety

Good innovation leadership ensures that employees feel psychologically safe and share more ideas. Employees should feel free to speak their minds, show their creative sides, and explore more risks and opportunities.

Effective communication

Effective communication plays a critical role in innovation and ensures that instructions, strategies, and expectations are disseminated properly. Furthermore, it ensures to keep information flowing more rapidly and openly.

Foster an environment of diversity 

Good innovation leadership encourages employees to work well with one another despite their inherent differences. This is because different perspectives can considerably contribute to solving innovation challenges and ensuring great outcomes.

Innovation leadership examples

Elon Musk

As CEO of SpaceX and visionary innovator, Elon Musk led the company to become the first private company to attempt to launch astronauts to orbit the International Space Station. Concurrently, Musk’s team at Tesla has been working to advance its autonomous vehicles space.

Mark Zuckerberg

Only in his 30s, Mark Zuckerberg believes in hiring for passion over skill as you can’t teach passion. As an avid innovation leader, Mark Zuckerberg encourages employees at Facebook to work on ventures they are passionate about before their assigned projects. Consequently, this passion trickles down to their motivation in other aspects of their work.

Mary Barra

Mary Barra was the first female CEO of a global automotive company. As chairman and CEO of General Motors, Mary Barra’s innovation leadership style is inclusive — as she continually seeks to create a team of the right people and make plans together to tackle challenges head-on. 

Ted Sarandos

As co-CEO and Chief Content Officer of Netflix, Ted has helped advance Netflix’s groundbreaking software algorithms to predict what movies would connect with viewers. Since his appointment, the approach has seen Netflix movies garner numerous Academy Awards and a steady increase in subscriber growth. 

Also read our article on “Noteworthy Innovation Examples That Revolutionised The World.”

Key Takeaways

All things considered, innovation leadership is not about simply adopting design thinking tools or having a big R&D budget. It is also about fostering a set of mindsets, skills, and behaviours that facilitate and empower others around you to continually deliver unprecedented results.

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An effective innovative leader doesn’t even need to be the person who formulates the idea behind an innovation. 

Often, they simply recognise a great idea–devised by a subordinate–and then envision the path that leads to that idea becoming a reality. 

Therefore, acceleration in decision-making, rewarding and recognition are some of the key innovation management techniques which one can adopt for an effective innovative leadership style.

The article is a part of our comprehensive series on “Driving innovation in an organisation.”