What is Innovation Leadership?

Innovation Leadership describes a leadership style that helps to stimulate and capitalize employees’ creative potential. The purpose of this management style is to increase a company’s ability to innovate and to enable business innovation.

Never before has there been so much discussion about innovation and leadership, from medium-sized companies to large corporations. Companies are under enormous pressure to innovate: the ingenious idea of today will be obsolete tomorrow. The life cycle of new ideas is short. And it is getting shorter and shorter. Innovation drives the economy. As a business leader, you will therefore be judged more and more by your capability to successfully manage business innovation and utilize the swarm intelligence of employees.

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Why is innovation important in leadership?

Every successful business innovation starts with idea generation. It’s about developing exceptional ideas that are the base for outstanding innovation success. Therefore, innovation and leadership are becoming more important to business leaders. Managers have to overcome the status quo, think ahead about tomorrow’s products and services, develop new business models and business processes.

The traditional relationship between managers and their subordinates was characterized by authority and obedience. The supervisor commands, the employee executes. Disciplined. Correct. Without contradiction. Hierachies reminiscent of the military. But in contemporary innovation management leadership styles are changing. Companies that want to implement an innovation strategy are required to build an innovation culture. They must be able to implement incremental innovation and continuous improvement as well as radical innovation. Business leaders play an increasingly important role in this process.

It is hard to imagine that ideas can be generated with a traditional management style: “Brainstorm! Ideas now!” Creativity and strong hierarchical approaches are difficult to combine. Accordingly, management approaches are subject to significant change. Leadership concepts of innovation leaders differ fundamentally from those in companies that preserve the existing. A leadership style in which managers act as a promoter for new ideas is becoming increasingly important for innovative companies.


The new leadership role: promoting innovation

Innovation and leadership are closely linked. As a manager, you know how to analyze markets and key figures, lead employees and develop strategies, set up processes and use numerous management tools. But one important discipline is missing in many leadership courses: The ability to effectively lead employees in the innovation process. Professors Alan G. Robinson of the University of Massachusetts and Sam Stern of Oregon State University stated in the late 1990s: “Managers and executives in most companies are aware that the creative potential in their company far exceeds their creative performance. The problem is they don’t know what to do.”

Implementing business innovation efficiently requires management concepts and organizational structures off the beaten track. For ideas to emerge and grow, companies – as the recognized strategy author Robert M. Grant calls it – need a “parallel structure”: a fundamentally different approach to operational and creative tasks. Modern idea management software and innovation management software such as Innolytics® Innovation support companies in establishing such structures.


Innovative Leadership characteristics

Leadership that promotes and enables innovation is characterized by specific attributes. “Creativity is killed much more often than encouraged,” says Teresa Amabile of Harvard University, which has been studying the relationship between creativity and work structures for more than 30 years. “Usually this does not happen because managers have an aversion to creativity. On the contrary, many believe in the value of new and useful ideas. However, creativity is unintentionally undermined every day by a working atmosphere that – for good reasons – has been created to maximize business needs such as coordination, control and productivity. To achieve their business goals, they develop organizations that systematically destroy creativity.” Innovation leadership therefore is a different leadership style. You’ll be introduced to three highly important leadership characteristics on this page.


Innovation Leadership promotes creativity through defined objectives and limitations

If you demand that a team only does what is feasible, you will rarely get exceptional results. A team that is encouraged to think within existing and proven solution patterns will get few ideas outside these boundaries. Innovation leadership means setting ambitious visionary goals and regularly pushing conventional boundaries.

The ingenious inventor Thomas Edison had an ambitious innovation goal: “A small invention every ten days, a large one every six months”. Such targets create an almost automatic tendency to create the framework for these ideas in one’s own area of responsibility: Setting goals, defining limits and giving employees the necessary freedom to develop ideas within these limits.

Forget the notion that ideas flow best when people can think completely open. The opposite is true. Restrictions encourage creative thinking. If you have three million Euros for the development of an advertising campaign, then think about an expensive commercial. If your job is to make the same impact with 30,000 euros, you inevitably have to be creative. “Austerity promotes innovation just as other constraints do.” This is a basic philosophy of company founder Jeff Bezos. To this day, he is one of the main advocates of an innovation approach that promotes creativity through limitations. Just like Google. Here, too, massive restrictions in time, money and sometimes even resources stimulate unusual solutions.


Innovation Leadership stimulates intrinsic motivation

In science, stimulating intrinsic motivation has been identified as one of the main success factors for innovation leadership. If employees can address a problem that excites them and for which they feel passion, the results of the creative thinking process are likely to be better than if assignments are distributed according to the standard principle of delegation. The reason is obvious: If you are passionate about a certain topic, you will become deeply involved in the subject. Nobody needs to tell you what to read or research – you do it on your own. And your head won’t stop thinking when it’s time to go home. In a number of studies, stimulating intrinsic motivation was repeatedly mentioned as one of the most important tasks in innovation leadership.

Few companies give their employees as much freedom as Nike gives its hundreds of designers. It is an example of a leadership style that aims to encourage employees to gather inspiration far beyond the traditional meeting rooms and turn it into ideas. “When you sit down and develop ideas, it’s a combination of everything you’ve done and seen in your life,” says Tinker Hatfield, Vice President of Innovation. He is the designer of the Nike Air sports shoe. “Interestingly, these shoes have their roots in the architecture of the Centre George Pompidou in Paris,” he explains. Nike transforms this open-minded way of innovation leadership and the freedom designers are given into a clearly measurable return on creativity.

A different example is an Innovation Week, which several companies grant their employees. Small groups look for a special topic in which they are interested. They have a week to develop ideas and concepts for this topic. The demands are high: Ideally there will be a prototype at the end of the week. Innovation Weeks are part of an initiative to revive creative thinking and action over and over again. The Innolytics® Innovation Software provides companies with a powerful tool to drive business innovation efficiently during such campaigns.


Innovation leaders act as “Chief Inspiration Officer”

In highly innovative companies, managers have a task that has little or no significance in traditional companies: they inspire employees. They open their company, their department and their team to new perspectives.

How can employees be exposed to new stimuli again and again? And how can they always be given new perspectives in order to maintain for example what Intel calls the “Outsider Advantage”? In the role of Chief Inspiration Officer, management takes unconventional measures. An example: The unwritten rule that the most experienced employees work on the most important projects can intentionally be broken. Management wants the Outsider Advantage. An advantage, because the fresh view from the outside leads to new perspectives. The reason: The newest employees do not yet know what is impossible or too difficult and try these things for exactly that reason.


Innovation leadership – enabler of a company’s innovation culture

Innovation leadership means that every manager has internalized innovation as an intellectual attitude. And that every employee is encouraged to develop ideas that lead to innovation. Leadership is an enabler of a culture of continuous improvement and innovation. Team leaders and middle management may be regularly invited to participate in innovation panels. Executives are encouraged to act self-confidently, but not to the extent that perception arises, others couldn’t do better.

In the next few years, more and more managers will have to face up to the approaches that the world’s most innovative companies have internalized. More and more, the question of greater effectiveness or increased creativity will have to be weighed against each other. More and more companies will be measured by how many ideas and how many successful innovations they can bring to market. For management, this requires – at all levels – a rethinking.

The world’s most innovative companies have anchored innovation deep into the DNA of their leadership culture. Every project, every working group and every process is designed in such a way that obstacles can be overcome quickly and easily through creative solutions. decisions are made quickly and unbureaucratically. Ideas arise where other companies get stuck. This is the value of innovation leadership.

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