What is innovation leadership?

How the most effective innovation leaders show up, get results, and superpower their teams

Take a moment to think of an exceptional leader you know. Perhaps you find this person particularly inspiring or empowering or exceptional at what they do. Perhaps you work for or with them (or have in the past, or hope to in the future). Perhaps it’s just someone you’d follow anywhere. Perhaps it’s you.

Next, think about someone in your life who you find really innovative. Maybe they’re really creative or experimental, or maybe they just always find a novel way of solving a problem. Maybe they’re someone who’s always “up to something interesting.” Maybe they regularly challenge the status quo or have lots of ideas for a better future. Maybe it’s you.

Now, choose someone you know who fits both descriptions, someone who is both an exceptional leader and unusually innovative. If the same person has come to mind for each question, this will be easy. With that person in mind, reflect on three questions:

  1. What is it about how they show up as individuals that makes them this way?

  2. What do they do that makes them this way?

  3. What conditions do they create, for those around them, that makes them this way?

You’ve begun to define innovation leadership.

Innovation leadership is the ability to inspire productive action in yourself and others during times of creation, invention, uncertainty, ambiguity, and risk. It is a necessary competency for organizations that hope to develop truly innovative products and services.

You’ve already listed some of the key characteristics of innovation leadership in the exercise above. Here, I’m sharing what I believe are the three ways of practicing of innovation leadership along with a few key competencies within each.

1. Being Innovation Leadership

Like with most practices, reaching mastery of innovation leadership starts within the person her- or himself. The most influential innovation leaders have a strong sense of how they’re showing up as individuals, from the inside out. They are aware of and intentional about the type of energy they bring in a given moment, and how that energy affects the people and process around them. They’re able to be both a participant in and an observer of the work they’re doing.

Specifically, masterful innovation leaders:

  • Have extraordinary self-awareness. Knowing our strengths, weaknesses, and blind spots is the starting point for authentic transformation and lasting mastery - not just of innovation leadership but of our full selves. Becoming mindful of where we stand with certain competencies enables and empower us to be choiceful with our actions, which leads us to be skillful and eventually masterful.

  • Manage their ego. This can be as challenging as it is important. Managing ego boosts humility, reduces defensiveness and the tendency to take things personally, enables true empathy, minimizes fear of failure, and so much more.

  • Have exceptional judgment - including about when to use it and when to not. You may be familiar with the common rule for brainstorming that asks participants to defer judgment of ideas. This is important because this kind of judgment can prematurely kill ideas and thus should be used wisely and sparingly (within and outside of the brainstorming context). Moreover, when it comes to decision-making, we must be extremely cautious applying judgment since we tend to base that judgment on prior experience and/or data. But as Jennifer Mueller explains in her compelling book, Creative Change, doing this “is problematic because creative ideas can be a poor fit to existing paradigms or templates precisely because they are creative.”

  • Balance a relentless drive to improve themselves with a strong sense of enoughness. Focus too much on how you can or should improve, and you may feel unsatisfied to a hopeless and crippling extent. Lean too far into your enoughness, and you may become complacent, cocky, or stagnant. Neither extreme is a good place to be for innovation work.

2. Doing Innovation Leadership

As important as it is to have a strong internal foundation for innovation work, leaders must also be adept at certain external skills & behaviors. In addition to directly adding value to your product and process, you are also modeling these skills & behaviors for the emerging innovation leaders on your team.

The best innovation leaders:

  • Navigate themselves and others through ambiguity. At times, this means creating clarity on an otherwise undefined path - possibly even artificially. This ability at least in part results from a (typically practiced) comfort with uncertainty. When done well, leaders that do this make those around them feel more comfortable with the uncertainty of innovation work.

  • Lead with questions, not answers. In Good to Great, Jim Collins emphasizes this as a foundational trait of what he calls Level 5 Leaders. I believe that innovation leaders should have at least a 5:1 ratio of questions to answers. Even when they (think they) know the answer, effective innovation leaders ask tons of questions (especially provocative ones, and especially to people whose experiences and perspectives differ from theirs). When they dislike an idea, witness a failure or mistake, or think there’s a better way, they start with curiosity. Questions open up possibilities. And unless they’re carefully crafted (see previous bullet, for example), answers can be stifling.

  • Plan well but quickly adapt as new information comes to light. In Extreme Ownership, former Navy SEAL Leif Babin explains a mindset necessary to succeed on the battlefield (a place of rapidly evolving conditions that demand constant course corrections...sound like your work at all?): “Continually check and question the plan against emerging information to ensure it still fits the situation.” If you’re not doing this, you may be operating on assumptions that are no longer valid. Speaking of which...

  • Make assumptions explicit. When you’re developing a product, service, or business that the world has never seen before, it’s inevitable to make assumptions. That’s OK. However, it’s imperative that you are clear about what is fact (i.e. data) and what is assumption. And when you realize an assumption isn’t valid, adapt.

  • Experiment relentlessly. Great innovation leaders don’t ask anyone (including themselves) whether something will work or if it’s a “good idea.” They build it, they test it, they iterate on it, and they let the experiment deliver an answer.

  • Prioritize learning. Innovation leaders are curious about everything. Their first inclination in a new situation is to learn as much as possible (the first step of design thinking is ‘Empathize,’ after all). They get outside the office and learn from the real world, not just research or their own thoughts. And when they make a mistake, their primary question is, “What can I learn from this?” When a prototype fails, they focus on what they and their team know now (or can soon) that they didn’t know before.

3. Fueling Innovation Leadership

Educator and creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson says that “the role of a creative leader is not to have all the ideas. It’s to create a culture in which everybody will have ideas.” Similarly, what separates good innovation leadership from great innovation leadership is the ability to create, cultivate, and sustain environments where everyone adds fuel to the collaborative fire.

Great innovation leaders:

  • Create psychological safety within and across teams. When people feel psychologically safe, they trust they can take risks and make mistakes without fear of punishment. From Harvard Business Review: “Studies show that psychological safety allows for moderate risk-taking, speaking your mind, creativity… — just the types of behavior that lead to market breakthroughs.” Put another way, creating psychological safety means making room for vulnerability. It also means avoiding guilt (“You did something bad”) and shame (“You are bad”), neither of which has any place in creative collaboration. Everyone benefits when everyone feels trust and safety.

  • Promote thought diversity. From Farnam Street: “Teams with members from different backgrounds can attack problems from all angles and identify more possible solutions than teams whose members think alike.” It seems that every problem worth tackling today is complicated and/or complex, and creating environments where everyone’s voice can be heard and everyone’s perspective can contribute to the outcome is a great way to reach an optimal solution. As we move toward a more unified and collaborative future, where individuals and groups with very different perspectives, backgrounds, and ideas are working together around shared goals and values, thought diversity must flourish.

  • Facilitate productive conflict. You may have heard the terms ‘conflict seeker’ and ‘conflict avoider.’ The best innovation leaders are what I like to call ‘conflict-comfortable’ - somewhere in between. They neither seek nor avoid conflict; rather, they both see and extract value from creative conflict. When there’s a disagreement, they see it as two perspectives that could complement one another or as ideas that could be better when combined.

  • Create an environment where information flows rapidly and openly. Keep feedback loops small, quick, and accurate. From management to complex systems theory to battlefield strategy, the rapid flow of accurate information is critical for minimizing risk and avoiding wasted time, money, and energy.

  • Minimize barriers to experimentation. Ask yourself, “How might I make it as easy as possible for my team to try out new ideas?” One way to do this is to challenge them to make the experiment as small, cheap, and low-risk as they can while still learning something. You’ll both be surprised at what you can learn - and the momentum you can build - from a very small test.

Innovation leadership isn’t just about adopting design thinking tools or having a big R&D budget. It’s about mastering a set of mindsets, skills, and behaviors that enable and empower yourself and those around you to continually deliver results the world has never seen.

If you’d like to elevate your mastery of innovation leadership and want to learn more about Lightshed’s Innovation Leadership Coaching, drop us a line at coaching@lightshed.co.