Innovation starts with people.
Things don’t innovate. They’re not people.
Companies don’t. They’re not people.
AI? Sorry, it’s not actually AI and of course, not person…yet…
None of the above lead either.
In the end, as in any kind of leadership, it’s about the person, the group of people after that doing those special things that get folks to run over the hill not knowing what’s on the other side.
Great innovators? They are rare. Period.
They are revealed, discovered – not trained or certified. The results certify.
So, without getting into an article on leadership itself, I’ll note here in my view what makes a great, effective innovator to begin with and then what does the marriage of a great innovator and great leadership look like.
Here’s my own historical experience and observation. I’m not one for gathering a dozen other views, especially in innovation, where most authors have never actually innovated, let alone through to large scale transformation.
Broadly and Deeply Curious
The best innovators almost immediately seem more worldly – they can talk about many subjects – not all – and not only know about them but have experienced them in wildly varied circumstances and depths. They like painting? They paint art, they buy art, they sell art, the study art, they study the materials, the trends, they teach each it, hang out with the ecosystem. They don’t just like art, own a few pieces and attend a show here and there.
In their chosen profession, they are typically not quiet, dull scientists or nerds in the classic sense. They develop new fibers for textiles? Well they make textiles, they make clothes, the build tents, they weave fabric, they dye fabric, the teach, they move around – sales, marketing, manufacturing, technical service – one way or another. They move up and down the value chain, the ecosystem. Might work at a retailer, a manufacturer, overseas…
You get the point. They’re not just curious. They’re “immersion everywhere” curious and like this usually a bunch of subjects and life interests.
Creative, Deeply Experimental
Great innovators use the above to find outlets for their creativity to not only be different but in a way that matters to others, usually in a big way. They try a zillion things but in a highly ordered, cascading priority way, constantly testing against what we call “The What Must Be Trues” to achieve a workable system.
They don’t just want to make a new burger (Beyond Meat) out of plants or a new way to checkout of a store (Lisnr). The later two noted firms want simple, elegant, blow away the norm innovations so powerful that their staffs’ lives has deep meaning beyond simply creativity. Great innovators seek platforms, not iterations. They are Edison distributing power or Jobs making simply usable, portable digital experiences to transform our lives for the better.
Holistic, Ecosystem Centric
The greatest innovators are not in the office. They are in the world, at the customer, their customer’s customers, the regulators, the influencers, the operators, the doers and then they do it themselves – every single job.
An example? I worked in auto coatings for a chunk of my young career. I was the only one who got fertilized in auto refinish, body work and associated finishing. Worked in shops. Enabled revolutionary resin systems thought impossible changing operator speeds while cutting way back on emissions and exposures. I worked with financial analysts and other groups never included let alone talked to by chemists. The result? In months? The painters, the shops loved it and the specs were not on any list anywhere…but in the shop.
Technical, Systems Oriented
While one can abstract, numbers are still a big deal. Targets, goals that demonstrate transformation to everyone in the ecosystem – not the direct customer alone. Their customers. Influencers. That’s where the real numbers, the technical nuance as noted above really emerge. How does the whole system work? Blow out their customers’ margins, bring their customers’ customers, with real quantification of impact. We’re not talking product specs – were talking here about the features that create transformational, quantifiable, order of magnitude relevant benefits.
It’s noted above a few times, but simply cannot be over emphasized. Great innovators do the jobs to be done. Do the other jobs. Build context, truth.
Understand by your own personal experience coupled with the market research, the interviews, the focus groups what’s really going on. Make an ice cream ingredient, make the ice cream, process it, eat it, serve it, package it – everything. Great innovators are experience obsessed. They just have to know.
So, Then What Makes a Great Innovation Leader?
Here’s where it gets interesting.
Great innovators are rare. Very rare.
No system, no software, no magic location or certificate, barefoot football, sticky note laden program will make everyone innovators. That’s a resource wasting, false promise, naughty consultant enriching, time wasting dream. You may take yourself from nothing to a baseline but not really any farther sans great innovators set free.
Rather, recognize that great innovators are rare, if you’re small you may not even have any. Be willing to discover, uncover, contract with or hire them. That the better approach. Stop this training stuff thinking otherwise.
Rather, realize that yes, everyone can contribute to innovation and that does not mean that have to be innovators. The support roles that catalyze long awaited Steven Johnson-esque epiphanies are many and critical. Too many great innovators do not have this and fail despite great minds. Many, not a shock, are not the best socially.
That training, work shop stuff? Use experiential exercises to discover whose great at the necessary, highly varied support roles – not to just find great innovators.
So, this leads us to what makes a great innovation leader.
The innovation leader that excels truly leads, enables, encourages all of the varied resources – including great innovators – to true transformation within the context of their own and other global ecosystems. It’s about the Edison power distribution, the Jobs iPhone, battery techs and platform cures for the worst diseases.
It’s certainly not marketing and branding gimmicks, not double stuff Oreos or ooh, yeah, spray cheddar cheese on taco shells. That’s purveyed as innovation – it’s not. Still important, profitable, but not that rare leadership for true innovation. For transformation.
So what are a few attributes of great innovation leaders?
Convincing with Absolute Purpose, Clarity
Great innovation leaders, like most collaboratively develop, evolve and communicate crystal clear vision and purpose with a simplicity and elegance that stuns. They see the world around them and can lead their cast, their team, their colleagues to see the bigger abstracted needs and trends, what abstracted solutions look like and where one might find these solution components, the “What Must Be Trues”. This all enables everyone involved to then comprehend their specific roles and how they can help other team members with the specific tasks at hand through time.
This overall elegance in communication convinces all involved that there is indeed gold over that hill and I know how I, the individual can contribute myself and how I can help others.
Inspiring a Truly Valued Cause
Then there’s the purpose, the cause. It’s not just the place to go but the why. Great innovation leaders can clearly, powerfully, through often direct experiences and examples, why the work in these abstractions, these areas to innovate transformation are important – and not to the company but to the actually individual team members and their work.
My favorite recent example from a friend Micah Zender was about generically a safety company. Micah arranged for the whole disheartened company team to be shocked by their works value. They had lost that. They were utterly disconnected. At an elementary school, they brought the team. They presented about the firm’s products. Then they said you all out there save lives. A woman stood up. “You saved her life”. Then several young children cane on stage. “This is the school this woman’s children go to. You saved their mother’s life. Her husbands life”. You get the picture.
A great innovation leader imbues deeply powerful purpose, long lasting inspiration and indeed makes it omnipresent daily.
Conveys great abstraction versus restrictive, existing, overly specific paradigms
Great innovation leaders stay at a higher scale most of the time and communicate their collaboratively developed vision constantly. They stay far from existing paradigms asking instead “what would need to be true” versus “how can we improve what we have”.
This is not to say that the existing ways of doing, in all aspects, are not to be respected, considered but rather that those things should serve as creating an understanding the abstraction of the collective jobs to be done and the barriers to new ways.
Sets clear, timely, commercially oriented goals
Folks can’t work well without a specific end game or intermittent goals, milestones. A great innovation leader again communicates, collaboratively discovers with the team the pain points, the “What Must Be Trues” to achieve and how “the better is the worst enemy of the good enough”. What are the clear goals, specifications that say an innovation has achieved a certain level of progress towards an idea to prototype to commercial evaluation? This is not as easy as it looks – paradigms creep in.
Transformation requires staying up in scale and translating that as noted to minimum but critical detail. By example, in our coatings program for high speed curing a new monomer platform the abstraction goal was could we transform auto manufacturing by eliminating energy in assembly? All or most heat? That’s worth tens of billions.
While a total LCA analysis was good, in use application goals were critical to prove the big goal was realistic and practical – Could we use existing equipment? Could we eliminate all solvent? Could we eliminate all or most heat for curing? What did that mean financially to the ecosystem in automotive? Lateral effects? We spent no time getting in the weeds of actual coating performance specification in developing the innovation. That was assumed based upon known chemistries.
The result is a coatings transformation coming that will soon stun.
Encourages mutual accountability
Team efforts, even with those few, rare great innovators, require collaboration and a sense of responsibility to each other. A great innovation leader is realistic, fair but tough on methodology, principles of approach and work expectations.
These leaders encourage folks to take responsibility not just for themselves but to pick up, team up and help others to keep the momentum going, the goals clear and the work of high quality where developed data is set in context versus simply presented. The best leaders step in and work just as hard but not as a leader, but as whatever is needed for whoever needs it.
There’s certainly a lot more, but for me the latter are some of the most important attributes combined with the traditional attributes of a great leader.
Certainly not any great leader can be a great innovation leader. Often, this is as noted more about role, responsibilities versus also overall experience. Folks without broad and deep ecosystem experience conceiving, developing, manufacturing and selling and servicing products likely just will not be able to lead innovation efforts – even on a granular level. No multifunctional management experience? Worse. No movement around the value chain, the ecosystem? Your likely set up for never achieving transformation. Rather, you’ll just push for the incremental and not innovate really at all.
We also too often we see innovation titles tossed out like candy, as if they are a magical thing. It’s not. Folks should stop. It creates completely unrealistic expectations or worse – no one even takes it seriously and it becomes a joke.
Folks discovered and seen as potential great innovators and innovation leaders generally should see and experience their ecosystem for likely years. There are rare exceptions, but not many. Success in functional roles by the book does not matter. Sales matter. Customer and their customer impact matters. It’s not a rotation. I’ve seen far too many “promoted” into innovation leadership set up to fail.
Find the great innovators, expose them to ever greater challenges, move them around, look on the outside – all of the same things most leadership rotations do but on a longer term basis among those you’ll see the leaders emerge. Encourage them, take care of them – pay them very well, reward them as they desire. They’re rare. There a precious few. Many become entrepreneurs, a few iconic.
Lastly, given that rarity, look to the outside. Find the real deals. Not the fakes, not the branders, the marketers, the trainers. The best by definition often are on their own, advising, consulting, on boards, starting companies all in that never ending pursuit of those rich, diverse, growing, learning experiences. A few are highly superior collectives…but they are still small.
You’ll only need a few. Find them. Join with them. Hire them.
Change the world!
What are your thoughts? I only touched the surface and I’m very curious to learn others’ insights!
Image credit: Pixabay
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Adam Malofsky, PhD is the Managing Director of Elemence, a cwhere they don’t just tell stories, they uncover them, experience them with you and together translate that into actual profitable products and services that fly off the shelf and change peoples lives. Reach Adam directly at 513-518-3550 EST!
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