Follow the leader

27 februari 2013

It would have been nice when leadership in innovation projects is as simple as The Soca Boys sing: just follow simple instructions such as up, down, left and right. Unfortunately innovation leadership is not that unambiguous; to the contrary it is multifaceted. Not only should a leader have multiple skills, the required skills are also conflicting. And in time – when the innovation project is progressing – the required type of leadership changes slightly.

Leadership key to innovation

It is recognized by innovation researchers that leadership is the most essential driver of innovation. Leaders have to inspire –which means that they have to generate or collect ideas that fit the organization’s vision and strategy – and have to make sure that the organization provides the necessary resources, make the culture flexible and processes speedy to support the development of innovation. In order to realize this, a leader must have multiple qualifications.

Innovation leadership qualifications

First of all, an innovation leader should have a combination of two seemingly contradictory qualities: being creative – which foster the emergence of ideas and concepts – and disciplined – to lead the process of development and market launching. An effective leader should balance these qualifications and apply them at the right time. This means that the creative process must not be killed by rigid instructions in order to make progress but at the same time it should be avoided that the creative process will last forever.

Next, the innovation leader must have a high degree of passion since it is the leader’s job to spread enthusiasm for the new product in the own organization. This will generate commitment within the organization which is essential for realizing the innovation. Again this qualification should be counter balanced: the leader should have a realistic view on the feasibility of plans and associated risks. Whenever expected feasibility becomes too low and/or risks too high, the leader should have the courage to stop the project. And this is not an easy task: it is far easier to start a new project than stopping one. Since about 75% of the innovation projects are failures, this is an essential task of an innovation leader. Stopping a failing project on time will avoid unnecessary spending. Still the job of the leader is not completed: he/she has to make sure that the organization learns from the failures.

The final talent that a leader should have is an open eye for external and internal technologies, discoveries and (unique) resources. Outside ideas have to be matched with own ideas and tailored to one’s organization. This prohibits that the organization is reinventing the wheel ánd gives a twist to existing ideas which should result in a unique perspective. For this a willingness to use what has been discovered elsewhere, has to be created.

Leadership and innovation life cycle

During the innovation project, a leader should shift somewhat its focus. In the exploration phase, ideation, networking and conceptualization are the main tasks. These tasks require the softer qualifications such as fostering creativity, creating enthusiasm and curiosity for new ideas and a mix and match of external and internal discoveries. When the experimentation phase – in which the product should be developed and pre-tested – is entered, the creativity focus should be continued while increasing the focus on progress. In the last stage, the implementation phase in which the market launch is prepared – the discipline towards results should dominate.

Shared leadership

It almost seems to be a mission impossible to find innovation leaders since they have to combine multiple and contrarian skills. Although the real life examples such as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Larry Page show that leadership of groundbreaking innovations is possible, only a few people have the ability to match this. Do not worry, you can also share leadership. And the funny thing is that researchers show that especially in smaller projects the potential for shared leadership greater.

Suggested readings:

Amabile, T. (1998). How to kill creativity. Harvard Business Review, 76(9), 77 – 87.

Bel, R.(2010) Leadership and innovation; Learning from the best. Global Business and Organizational Excellence. Jan/Febr 2010, 47 – 60.

Couzin, I. D., Krauze, J., Franks, N. R., & Levin, S. A.(2005). Effective leadership and decision-making in animal groups on the move. Nature, 433, 513–516.

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Over de Auteur


Irma is meer dan 20 jaar actief als management consultant in de ICT sector en oprichter van SMARTconsulting.nu. Zij heeft een bedrijfskundige en financiële achtergrond en specifieke ervaring met innovatiemanagement, business modellering, financiële assessments, risico analyse, scenario ontwikkeling en benefit realisation management. Naast deze expertise heeft Irma onderzoekskennis en ervaring opgebouwd door in (internationale) researchprojecten te participeren.