How leading innovation is different from leading business operations
The state of innovation in organizations is unsettling. Executives overwhelmingly point to innovation as the growth engine for their organizations yet actual innovation performance is underwhelming. There are several factors contributing to the issue and one of them is the way innovation is led. The reality is that most organizational leaders don’t really understand innovation or know how to lead it.
Well, that is about to change with this interview. The Center for Creative Leadership conducts original research, with findings to help leaders be more effective. New research conducted by Mike Mitchell found that leading innovation requires a different approach to leadership. This research explains what leaders need to do to effectively lead innovation.
Mike joins me to discuss what is needed to lead innovation and what product managers need to know as well.
Mike has a Ph.D. in Industrial Psychology with a focus on Organizational Leadership. His focus is on what it takes to successfully contribute to, and lead, innovation in an organization. He is a senior faculty member at the Center for Creative Leadership.
Summary of some concepts discussed for product managers
- [5:20] What do leaders say about the importance of innovation? There is a large gap between what leaders say about the need for innovation and their organization’s ability to deliver innovation. When CCL surveys leaders, 98% say innovation is important to them. When the same leaders are asked if their organization is effective at innovation, only 14% say they are. With rounding, we call that the 85% gap.
- [6:15] What drives the 85% gap? Senior executives may have risen to their leadership role without learning much about innovation and gaining experience with it. Now with the pace of change in markets, innovation has become much more important. Consequently, leaders don’t really know what it means when they ask the organization to be more innovative. Another factor is how business leaders are trained, which is to reduce risk and increase predictability. In essence, business leaders are trained to kill innovation.
- [10:16] How does leading innovation differ from leading an on-going business? My research indicates that the leadership needed is definitely different for both environments. There are tensions that exist in both environments, but the tensions are greater leading innovation and need to become the focus of the innovation leader. There are five tensions: risk, ambiguity, visibility, creativity, and uncharted territory.
- [11:22] What is the risk tension? Innovation is all risk. You either succeed or fail. There is no middle ground. When leading an on-going business, revenue flow compensates for mistakes. Those leading innovation are making bets. Some will be successful and many will not.
- [12:40] What is the ambiguity tension? The work of innovation is filled with ambiguity because you are making decisions that have not been made before about something that has not been done before.
- [13:25] What is the visibility tension? It is a highly visible role. As an innovation leader, your organization quickly knows if you are good or not good at your job. Success results in a new product, company, etc. People will see the success. Likewise, when the objective is not met and the innovation efforts fail, people will see that as well.
- [14:08] What is the creativity tension? Creativity is the ability to think of novel things. Creativity defines innovation – the execution of a creative idea that provides value to the organization. Creativity threatens predictability and is less present in on-going business operations.
- [14:40] What is the uncharted territory tension? If you knew how to move from point A to point B, it would not be called innovation. You would know how to execute properly. This isn’t innovation because you know how to do it. Innovation involves doing something new that hasn’t been done before. This means working in uncharted territory.
- [18:48] What do innovation leaders need to do? We found two categories of needs. One we call practical leadership, which includes getting the resources the innovation project needs, selling the idea up to senior leadership, providing cover for the innovation team when they are not meeting their deadlines. The other area we call emotional support, which includes trust, partnership, and purpose making. While each is present in leading an on-going business, they are more critical for innovation and emotional support is more important than practical leadership.
- [21:27] What is emotional support? It is defined as offering someone encouragement, understanding, and reassurance as they experience something. This differs from psychological safety and praising. Emotional support is much deeper and authentic.
- [23:40] What is the trust component of emotional support? I need to discuss the role of Boss and Innovator to describe the components of emotional support. The Boss is the leader of innovation and the Innovator is the person responsible for working towards an innovation objective. Trust means that the Boss demonstrates trust for the Innovator – demonstrating that they believe the Innovator knows what they are doing. That empowers the Innovator to believe in her/himself, encouraging them to work in an environment with many unknowns. The opposite of this is micromanaging, which conveys to the Innovator that they are not the right person for the work. The Innovator then stops believing in themselves.
- [26:46] What is the partnership component of emotional support? Partnership is about the Boss and the Innovator being in an equal relationship as opposed to a superior-subordinate relationship. The Boss must work as an equal to solve the problems and accept the risk of innovation. In innovation, no one knows how to get from point A to point B. The uncharted territory is an unknown to everyone involved. The Innovator needs to know they are not alone and that the Boss is a partner in the effort.
- [26:46] What is the purpose-making component of emotional support? The nature of innovation makes it easy for Innovators to lose site of why they are doing what they are doing – what the original objective was. Frequent change is a characteristic of innovation and the Innovator may lose purpose. To provide emotional support and keep the Innovator inspired, conveying that their work is important, the Boss must provide purpose in the midst of change. Fundamentally, this connects the Innovator’s work with the innovation objective.
- [35:53] How can product managers (Innovators) use this information? You need to ask your Boss to provide the three components of emotional support – trust, partnership, and purpose-making. Also, on really bad days when the organization seems to be against you, recognize that the work of innovation requires a deeper emotional investment than those involved in the on-going business. It’s normal to feel that emotional toll and to express it to your boss.
- Mike’s Book: Supporting Innovators: Trust, Purpose, Partnership
- Center for Creative Leadership, CCL
- CCL’s innovation research findings
“When we are creating we are at our most human. When we are at our most human, we are at our most vulnerable.” – Mike Mitchell
Thank you for being an Everyday Innovator and learning with me from the successes and failures of product innovators, managers, and developers. If you enjoyed the discussion, help out a fellow product manager by sharing it using the social media buttons you see below.