Three Crucial Behaviors for Successfully Leading Innovation




Research Summary: “Three Crucial Behaviors for Successfully Leading Innovation” By Michael T. Mitchell, Center for Creative Leadership (2017)

Operational vs. Innovative Leadership

At Issue: Technology is advancing at a blistering pace, creating new opportunities for organizations that could hardly have been imagined a generation ago.  As a result, the capacity of organizations to innovate is a defining trait – perhaps the defining trait – of businesses that will thrive in the coming decades.  It is therefore crucial to understand the leadership behaviors that are essential for driving successful innovation in the workplace.

Research Objective(s): The researcher’s objective was to understand which leadership behaviors in the workplace are the most significant drivers of successful innovation projects.  The researcher also sought to understand which managerial behaviors are detrimental to the success of innovation initiatives.

Scope: The study encompassed numerous organizations in various different industries.  All the employees and managers surveyed had been involved in multiple successful innovation projects.

Approach: Clients of the Center for Creative Leadership were surveyed in 2015.  The researcher identified and interviewed people immediately responsible for driving innovation in their workplaces, in addition to interviewing their direct supervisors.

Findings: Just 14 percent of the survey respondents characterized their organizations as being effective at innovation.  The principles of traditional leadership were developed primarily to ensure excellence in the relatively predictable context of operations; however, leaders who attempt to take the same managerial approach to fostering innovation are likely to fail.  In order to create something completely new, rather than simply making incremental changes or managing ongoing operations, managers must take a wholly different leadership approach. Innovation leadership differs from operations leadership because the essential nature of innovation within organizations is (1) ambiguous; (2) high profile; (3) risky; and (4) uncharted territory.

The three crucial behaviors for successfully leading innovation are (1) leader demonstrates trust in his or her team; (2) leader keeps the team focused on the overall purpose or goal of the innovation initiative; and (3) leader is an equal partner in the innovation effort.

This third behavior, whereby the leader “partners” with the innovation team, is the most significant to ensuring an innovation project’s success.  Leaders who act like partners provide not only logistical but, perhaps most importantly, emotional support to the innovation team. The most effective partner-leaders practice the following:

(1) Participation in problem-solving exercises with the innovation team;

(2) Active involvement in group brainstorming to help chart the innovation path;

(3) Proactive clearing of organizational obstacles to innovation; and

(4) Equal sharing of risks among leaders, innovation managers. and innovation teams.

Notes: The full text of this study can be accessed here.

Keywords: innovation leadership, innovation strategy, operations leadership

Researcher Profile: Allie Grace Garnett is a professional researcher and freelance writer with a background in finance and entrepreneurship.  A serial entrepreneur who has established numerous businesses, Ms. Garnett previously was a founding Principal of Nexos Resource Partners (NRP), an energy project finance firm in New York.  Prior to co-founding NRP, Ms. Garnett provided financial advisory and fund raising services to institutional-scale energy funds with Sustainable Development Capital. Ms. Garnett served as the Vice President of Marketing and Strategic Partnerships for the start-up Rentricity, and additionally founded a nonprofit organization (YAVA) that encourages volunteerism among college students.  Ms. Garnett holds a Master of Business Administration degree from Harvard Business School and a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering degree from Northeastern University.


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