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When Innovation Leaders and Management Fail

Mon, 01/05/2015 - 15:59 -- KevinMcFarthing

While leadership and management are inextricably linked, they remain different.  When it comes to innovation, they remain crucial to the ability of an organization to deliver growth.  Good innovation management is fundamental, but without strong leadership, much of the good work done in management can be undone. 

There’s a big difference between leadership and management.  Leaders articulate a vision and set the direction.  They determine priorities.  They also set standards; building expectations of the performance and output they want from their organization.  The top leader, the CEO/President (or in one company I really like, the Chief Juicer) is a figurehead who has a major influence on the company.  But they aren’t alone; leadership is a characteristic that needs to be displayed throughout the organization.

According to the PwC 2013 survey of 246 CEOs and their approach to innovation, the two most important ingredients for successful innovation were strong visionary leadership and having the right culture.  So the leaders clearly think leadership matters for innovation.

A typical company is built according to groups such as sales, marketing, R&D, supply, HR etc.  There is rarely a vertically structured innovation group.  Innovation sometimes resembles a game of “pass the parcel” where nobody wants to be left with the responsibility when the music stops.  Innovation has to work laterally so, if anything, leaders should devote more time to innovation than any other issue simply because of the organizational barriers to be overcome.

Leaders set challenges.  These can be of the grand variety, but more commonly they are tough targets that stretch the organization’s ability to deliver and, along the way, enhance its ability to compete more strongly in the future.  Good leaders communicate well and often.  Their written and verbal communication sets the tone of the organization.  That’s why there should be great consistency with the vision, direction, priorities and standards.  If not, people are confused and innovation can suffer.

Yet there is often a disconnect between what is said and what is done, which can confuse the innovation picture.  A recent survey in which I was involved with the IACCM (International Association of Contract and Commercial Management) is a good example.  Of the companies represented in the survey, 75% had innovation as a top 3 corporate priority.  However only 51% of people felt they had support for innovation from the C-suite, and even fewer (30%) had targets related to innovation.

I attended an innovation conference recently, and had a good discussion with one of the attendees, who is responsible for the innovation programme at a major multinational institution.  His team seemed to have done some smart things, with good initiatives supporting creativity, testing and implementation.  So when the opportunity arose to have the CEO speak at a major launch event, the innovation head jumped at the chance….

The event was going really well.  Then the CEO stood up.  His message was basically “this innovation stuff is all well and good, but don’t forget we have other priorities.  We have to protect the business, to deal with all the regulatory and competitive challenges we have; so don’t get carried away.”

The innovation head could feel the enthusiasm drain away like a rapidly deflating balloon.  After this, he has little chance of getting support for any major innovation initiatives, because the CEO has made it clear where his priorities lie.  It may be the right thing for the business, but it’s despite the CEO writing about the importance of innovation for the future.  This is a classic case of inconsistent leadership of innovation. 

Leadership of innovation is crucial.  If it’s to be effective, leaders must say what they mean and mean what they say. 

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