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Leading Innovation: The Importance of Leadership in Innovation

Leadership plays an essential role in leading innovation at their organization.

“Studies have shown that 20 to 67 percent of the variance on measures of the climate for creativity in organizations is directly attributable to leadership behavior. What this means is that leaders must act in ways that promote and support organizational innovation.”
– Center for Creative Leadership

Culture of Innovation

Innovation can take many forms. Many people associate innovation with disruptive innovation or radical innovation that transforms an industry or multiple industries, but continuous innovation, or frugal innovation can also have significant impacts on success and performance. Interestingly, some argue that several, smaller incremental innovations can have a bigger impact on performance and a more sustainable competitive advantage. While disruptive innovation becomes highly visible very quickly, smaller incremental improvements can add up to significant quality, speed or efficiency improvements that are much harder for competitors to incorporate as a best practice. They may also be important pre-cursors to more significant innovations.

“You need to provide a way for those hunches to come together and turn them into something that is bigger than the sum of their parts.”
– Steven Johnson

While each form of innovation may at first appear to need different skills and processes to support it, there’s evidence this isn’t the case. While the innovation process may take on different levels of risk, require different resourcing and take longer, much of the foundation of where the ideas come from is the same. In Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson looks at the places and organizations that provided some of the biggest innovations in the last century. His biggest finding was that innovation does not come from the eureka moments of highly creative individuals, but that ideas are hunches that people carry around sometimes for decades before they turn into something useful. Furthermore, it’s often the connection of hunches or ideas that ultimately translate into something bigger. This short 4 min animated video takes you through the key findings from the book.

The conclusion is that the environment or culture of an organization is critical. Creating this environment and culture rests on the shoulders of leadership. Let’s take a deeper look at why and how this happens.

Leading Innovation: Why Supportive Leadership is Critical

Employees look to leaders for direction and often emulate their attitudes and behaviors. Leaders play a pivotal role, simply by showing a positive attitude towards new ideas and approaches. By removing obstacles and clearing the red tape to ensure idea programs receive the attention, resources, and staff that they need, they enhance innovation success. Through supportive leadership, innovation projects can come to fruition, and research supports this, showing that new ventures that receive support from top management are much more likely to succeed.

Top management links innovation to core organizational missions and strategies. Is innovation something that your team does during down time? Or, is it part of your company’s strategy for achieving its mission? Leaders can make it a central focus, bringing innovation into the culture and forefront of the organization’s activities. By celebrating innovation efforts and successes, supportive leaders encourage others to bring forth new ideas and to try new things. By bringing it to the strategic level, employees are not only encouraged to innovate; they see it as part of their job. Members of the executive team and top management have the power and authority to make things happen, but they also possess much more than this. It is the support that top management can provide that gives momentum to employees when innovation goals seem unachievable or when they do not think they have the equipment, training, or other resources to make it work. Leaders can build confidence and bridge the gaps between what team members need and what they have to achieve success.

Often playing an integral role, interfacing with employees and management, key stakeholders within and outside of the company, and clients and customers, top management also has unique knowledge to share — their ideas can help drive innovation. Supportive leaders participate in idea generation and evaluation. They provide keen oversight of this process using idea management tools, providing timely feedback and encouragement. They can also help by neutralizing negativity in the idea evaluation process and helping teams to mitigate resistance to new ideas and change.

Business leaders looking to promote an innovation project have to ask themselves if they have top management support. What type of support can they count on receiving? Will this be enough, and if not, what should they be asking of top management to help ensure their success?

In summary, leading innovation requires leaders to:

  • Show a positive attitude towards new ideas and approaches
  • Remove obstacles and clear red tape to ensure idea programs receive the attention, resources, and staff that they need
  • Link innovation to core organizational missions and strategies
  • Celebrate innovation efforts and successes
  • Neutralize negativity and create an environment that has a tolerance for risk and failure
  • Lead by example by participating in idea generation, evaluation and feedback

* This post was updated on January 29, 2016 to include new insights on leading innovation.

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