We all want to be successful leaders, and if you’re reading this, you probably want to be a successful innovation leader.
But what does that mean?
What is a leader?
First, let’s clarify what makes a “leader” because we use it as a synonym for “manager,” they’re different.
In a nutshell, leaders have followers, people who choose to work with or for them. Managers have employees, people who must work with them. There are, of course, lots of other differences, and this list is a good starting point.
For this reason, leaders can (and do) exist at any level of the organization, whereas managers exist at higher levels as defined by the company’s org chart. So, while you can be a leader and not a manager, or both a leader and a manager, it’s important to remember that not all managers are leaders.
How can I be a successful leader?
As a designer friend of mine says, “it’s contextual.”
And while that’s true, as you get into the detail, I’d argue that a successful leader is someone who does the right thing in the right way.
Achieving that requires leaders to deliver required results and achieve those results ethically, legally, respectfully, and fairly. If you burn your people out, create or allow a toxic work environment, or engage in any number of harmful behaviors, you may be doing the right thing, but you’re definitely not doing it in the right way.
How can I be a successful innovation leader?
1. Action-oriented: You know that you need to take different actions if you want different results. You balance the need for thinking, exploration, and analysis with the need to create, experiment, engage in real-world learning.
2. Collaborative: You know that collaboration is more than simply showing up to the meeting. To you, collaboration is conversation, and the best conversations are the ones in which you talk less and listen more.
3. Committed: You’re in it for the long haul. You know that change happens slowly then fast and that billion-dollar businesses aren’t built in a quarter or even a year. You’re patient for growth and impatient for profit. You protect your teams from the impatient demands of others.
4. Engaged: You work with the team, talking to customers, building prototypes, and celebrating the wins and the learnings (which may be disguised as failures).
5. Honest: You are honest with yourself and your team. You earn your team’s trust because you don’t play guessing games, you’re transparent about how you make decisions, and you are consistent about how you make those decisions.
6. Intellectually Humble: You recognize and admit that the things you think you know may not be accurate. You are open to being wrong (yes, even publicly) because it’s part of learning.
7. Optimistic realist: You hope for the best and prepare for the worst. You know that things won’t always work out but that the odds of success increase when you do your best and inspire others to do theirs.
8. Tough: You know that “pioneers take the arrows, settlers take the land,” and you’re not afraid to take a few arrows. You know that people will question and doubt you and your team, but the promise of new or better is simply too irresistible.
9. Willing to take smart risks: You know that nothing is truly risk-free and that the further you venture from what’s known, the greater the risk. You also know that’s where the greatest rewards are, too. So you focus on managing and minimizing risks, getting just enough data to make the best next decision possible.
#10 is for you
What is missing from this list? What characteristic(s) make you a successful leader of innovation?
“We want to build a culture of innovation.”
It’s a noble goal. After all, a culture that values and encourages innovation is an essential component of an innovative company – one that repeatedly and reliably uses innovation to grow revenue.
But you don’t need to build a culture of innovation. You already have one.
You need to unleash the aspects of your existing culture that fuel innovation.
It’s possible by making one shift in how you, and your colleague, think.
Stop (only) thinking like an employee
As an employee, you have a job to do. You have responsibilities and deliverables. There are processes your need to follow and TPS reports you need to complete. In return, you receive a regular paycheck and perhaps an annual bonus. If you’re successful, you get more responsibilities and deliverables resulting in bigger paychecks and bonuses.
Being an employee is not easy. Every day you deal with office politics, decisions you disagree with, emergencies you didn’t create, and well-intentioned but annoying colleagues. Every year or so you also deal with market uncertainty, re-orgs, layoffs, and maybe even merger or acquisition.
But through it all, you know that if you solve the problem that you’re given in a way that’s been proven and deliver the expected results in the expected timeframe, you’ll get the paycheck and the bonus, and maybe even the promotion.
The work you do is important. How you do it is important.
The world, the market, your company needs you to be a great employee.
But you don’t need to be only an employee.
Start thinking like an owner
As an owner, you have a job to do. You need trying to figure out what problem you’re solving and how to solve it profitably so that you can sustain and grow your business.
Being an owner is not easy. Every day you answer questions that you never anticipated, turn the unknown in to the known and acted upon, inspire other to invest in you, take a leap of faith while maintaining faith in yourself.
But through it all, you ask questions and never accept the first or obvious answer. You pour your time, energy, and passion into creating something you believe will make people’s lives better. You invest in your business, yourself, your employees, your suppliers, and all the other people working together to build something. And you remain confident that one day, you’ll reap the rewards.
Employees with an Owner’s mindset
At the heart of innovative companies and cultures are employees with an owner’s mindset.
They do their jobs and find ways to do their jobs better.
They follow prescribed processes and question the status quo.
They ask questions and work to find the answers.
They seek to understand decisions and engage to inform and influence them.
They deal with emergencies and take the time to investigate and address root causes
They cash their paychecks and work to build something better.
People who think and act like employees and owners (and know when each is required) deliver today’s results and create tomorrow’s business.
Your job as a leader is to help them strengthen their employee mindset and build their owner mindset so they can unleash your company’s culture of innovation.
Do you remember the 2010s? The US economy was in its most prolonged ever period of expansion. Unemployment was at a 50-year low, and there were 110 months of uninterrupted job gains.
Everyone talked about innovation.
Entrepreneurs worked at it, and their startups became unicorns while they became celebrities.
The big companies, the companies with capital, scale, and resources far exceeding that of any startup or even a unicorn, only played with it.
Sure, they hosted hackathons and shark tanks, spun up innovation teams and corporate venture capital arms, and took field trips to Silicon Valley and Burning Man. But what do they have to show for it? What market (re)defining value came from all that activity?
Because it’s nearly impossible to change when you have no immediate need to change.
Too often, success stifles innovation.
But leaders can change that.
Keep innovation on your RADAR
As a manager, you need to deliver today’s business by keeping costs down and revenue up.
As a leader, you want to establish a legacy of long-term success that fuels the business and inspires your people long after you’ve moved to your next role.
The key to achieving both is through the daily practice of innovation. While many leadership behaviors create a culture of innovation and drive business results, I’ve found that RADAR is a handy acronym for some of the key practices of top leaders.
Innovation is something new that creates value. Most people interpret this to mean that innovation is a new to the world product that makes billions in revenue. And while that may be true, it’s much too myopic.
“Something” could be anything from a product to a process, service, revenue model, or delivery model. “New” could be new to the world or your industry, company, function, or team. “Value” could be more revenue or lower costs, higher profits, a better/faster/cheaper/easier experience, or even greater customer or employee satisfaction.
By expanding the definition of innovation, you invite more people into its practice and create more opportunities for innovation to thrive.
As a leader, it’s natural to feel like you need to have the answers. And sometimes, you do. But often, it’s more vital for you to ask the right questions.
By asking questions, you’re teaching your people to think and take ownership of their work. You’re also demonstrating that you trust them because they are closer to the work than you are. If all you give are answers, you won’t get any wiser, and neither will your team. If you ask questions, everyone, including you, will get smarter and make better decisions.
When faced with a problem, it’s tempting to jump right to a solution. But if you jump too soon, you could jump to the wrong solution or create an even bigger problem.
Instead, fall in love with the problem. Explore it, question it, embrace it, amplify it, turn it inside out, take it to the extreme. Then, once you’ve embraced the mess that is the problem, play with possible solutions – how would a different industry solve the problem, what if you focused on solving only one key aspect, how could you make it worse?
Yes, this will be uncomfortable (which is why it’s ok to timebox the exercise), but it will also push your team’s thinking and uncover options you never knew existed.
Some lessons can only be learned through experience. As a kid, you know the burner on the stove is hot, but you don’t fully understand how hot it is until you put your hand on it (and then you never forget)
Imperfect action is always a better teacher than perfect inaction. Yes, you need to do the research and conduct the analysis, but eventually, there comes the point when doing is a better way to learn.
Reflect on Lessons Learned
You build knowledge through instruction and skills through experience, but you don’t lock those things in and convert them into habits until you reflect on what you heard and did.
Set your team up to learn at the start of a project by asking what they expect will happen and why, what they’ll do if they’re right, and what they’ll do if they’re wrong. No judgment, no keeping score, just an exercise to prime you and your team for learning
At the end, reflect on the journey. Ask what went right, what went wrong, what went as expected, what didn’t, what we would do differently, and what will we change. Record the answers without judgment and create a plan to put them into action on the next project
How will you keep innovation on your RADAR?
Building innovation habits is key to ensuring that success doesn’t stifle innovation. Daily habits like those in RADAR will make amplifying and unleashing innovation easier.
I’d love to hear what other innovation habits you practice. How do you keep innovation on your RADAR?
“We need to be more innovative.”
How many times have you said or heard that? It’s how most innovation efforts start. It’s a statement that reflects leaders’ genuine desire to return to the “good ol’ days” when the company routinely created and launched new products and enjoyed the publicity and growth that followed.
But what does it mean to “be more innovative?”
A is for Architecture
Architecture includes most of the elements people think of when they start the work to become more innovative – strategy, structure, processes, metrics, governance, and incentives.
Each of these elements answers fundamental questions:
- Strategy: Why is innovation important? How does it contribute to our overall strategy?
- Structure: Who does the work of innovation?
- Process: How is the work done?
- Metrics: How will we know when we’re successful? How will we measure progress?
- Governance: Who makes decisions? How and when are decisions made?
- Incentives: Why should people invest their time, money, and political capital? How will they be rewarded?
When it comes to your business, you can answer all these questions. The same is true if you’re serious about innovation. If you can’t answer the questions, you have work to do. If you don’t want to do the work, then you don’t want to be innovative. You want to look innovative*.
B is for Behavior
Innovation isn’t an idea problem. It’s a leadership problem.
Leaders that talk about innovation, delegate it to subordinates and routinely pull resources from innovation to “shore up” current operations don’t want to be innovative. They want to look innovative.
Leaders who roll up their sleeves and work alongside innovation teams, ask questions and listen with open minds, and invest and protect innovation resources want to be innovative.
To be fair, it’s incredibly challenging to be a great leader of both innovation and operations. It’s the equivalent of writing equally well with your right and left hands. But it is possible. More importantly, it’s essential.
C is for Culture
Culture is invisible, pervasive, and personal. It is also the make-or-break factor for innovation because it surrounds innovation architecture, teams, and leaders.
Culture can expand to encourage and support exploration, creativity, and risk-taking. Or it can constrict, unleashing antibodies that swarm, suffocate, and kill anything that threatens the status quo.
Trying to control or change culture is like trying to hold water in your fist. But if you let go just a bit, create the right conditions, and wait patiently, change is possible.
Easy as 123
The most common mistake executives make in the pursuit of being “more innovative” is that they focus on only A or only B or only C. But, as I always tell my clients, the answer is “and, not or.”
- Start with Architecture because it’s logical, rational, and produces tangible outputs like org charts, process flows, and instruction manuals filled with templates and tools. Architecture is comforting because it helps us know what to do and how.
- Use Architecture to encourage Behavior because the best way to learn something is to do it. With Architecture in place (but well before it’s finished), bring leaders into the work – talking to customers, sharing their ideas, and creating prototypes. When leaders do the work of innovation, they quickly realize what’s possible (and what’s not) and are open to learning how to engage (behave) in a way that supports innovation.
- Leverage Architecture and Behavior to engage Culture by creating the artifacts, rituals, and evidence that innovation can happen in your company, is happening and will continue to happen. As people see “innovation” evolve from a buzzword to a small investment to “the way we do business,” their skepticism will fade, and their support will grow.
Just like the Jackson 5 said
ABC, It’s easy a 123
Architecture, behavior, culture – they’re all essential to enabling an innovation capability that repeatedly creates new revenue.
And while starting with architecture, building new leadership behaviors, and investing until the culture changes isn’t easy, it’s the 123 steps required to “be more innovative.”
Imagine that you decided to temporarily shut down your business. You made this decision because you knew something major could go wrong and, despite some efforts, you didn’t make as much progress as you hoped. So, you temporarily closed without knowing how long “temporarily” would be.
Three months later, you have made big changes. Massive, ginormous, monumental changes. Changes to foundational elements of your business. You discontinued a beloved product, made existing products safer and expanded a controversial product.
Now, imagine that the press followed all of this. They reported on every meeting, speculated on every discussion, and critiqued every statement. They even said you should be fired.
But now, today, you announced that you’re open for business. All the problems are solved, and all the changes rolled out. The press celebrated, and articles, podcasts, and news stories heralded your business’ re-opening.
Your customers yawned.
They didn’t miss you.
Many didn’t even know you were gone.
A True Story
You just read the story of Major League Baseball at the end of its 99-day lockout.
But it could also be the story of your business if you make the same mistake MLB did in December, which is the same mistake it has made for the past 20+ years.
It forgot what business it’s in.
MLB thinks it’s in the baseball business. For some customers, diehard fans, it is. But for most, baseball is in the business of helping customers to:
- Make memories
- Have fun
- Feel connected to others
- Be entertained
- Drink beer and eat junk food without guilt
These are the Jobs to be Done that customers hire baseball to do for them. But there are dozens of other businesses offering to do the same Jobs, many in ways that are lower cost and more easily accessible. And fans are taking their business to those competitors.
According to Statista, the average per game attendance was 18,900 in 2021, a 34% decline from 2019. Even more troubling than this “generational low” is that people aren’t even watching baseball at home, evidenced by the 12% decline in TV viewership for games.
Customers are rejecting baseball. They just don’t care about it as much as they used to. As a result, they’re spending less time and less money on it and finding newer and better alternatives.
3 Questions to Figure Out if You’re Out (or In)
This story isn’t unique to MLB. It’s the story at the core of many failed businesses. The outward view of solving customers’ problems gives way to an increasingly inward-facing view of the business the business is in.
The story isn’t fast-paced or obvious, either. The declines happen slowly – average gameday attendance dropped only 367 people annually from 2012 to 2019, a decrease that’s easy to miss when considering that the average MLB ballpark holds 43,000 people.
But once the decline starts and apathy sets in, it is challenging to change the story. But not impossible.
If you want customers to care about you again, to need you and your products the way they used to, you need to care more about your customers than your business. You need to ask three questions:
1. “Why do you choose us?” (in Innovation-speak this translates to, “What are your Jobs to be Done?”)
2. “When you don’t choose us, who do you choose and why?”
Then you must listen. Really listen. To EVERYTHING customers say. The reasons you want to hear and the ones you don’t, The competitors you know and the ones you least expect. The things that make them better that you know and the ones you don’t agree with.
Then, and only then, do you look inward at your operations and business model and ask.
3. “What business are we in?”
Are your operations set up to deliver delight to customers or maximum efficiency to your business? Is your business model set up to create value for customers or maximize profit for you? Are you increasing the size of bases 3 inches and claiming its safer or doing everything possible to reduce the game’s length and increase its fun factor?
It’s not customer rejection that kills a business. It’s customer apathy.
Don’t allow your customers to become apathetic. They cared about your business once. Keep giving them reasons to care by asking what they care about and delivering it.
How do you make sure that you’re in the right business?
When you were a child, you knew that the best stories began with “Once Upon a Time” and end with “And they lived happily ever after.” As an adult, you know that stories can begin and end any number of ways.
As a leader trying to grow a business, it may seem like all your innovation stories end with “And then we cancelled the project/disbanded the team/got distracted by the needs of our current business”
Why is that?
How can you change your innovation story the endings to “And they lived happily ever after (because they launched lots of cool new stuff that people loved and paid for and that led to new revenue and lots of growth and happy employees and other wonderful happy things)”
While there are hundreds, if not thousands, of answers to those questions, one of them is in the way you start the story.
How the story begins
Think about the last time you kicked off an innovation project. What did you say?
Story 1: “We need you to work on X and we don’t want you to be encumbered by what we’ve done in the past. We want you to explore, think creatively, and really push our thinking.
Story 2: “We need you to work on X and, to save you time, here is everything we did in the past. Use this as a starting point and build from here.
Story 3: We need you to work on X. Here’s what we did in the past, but we’re not tied to it. Look it over and let me know what you think we should do from here.
There’s nothing obviously wrong with any of these.
Just like “Once upon a time,” they start with clear direction – we need you to work on X. Even better, they all express your positive intentions and support (push our thinking, save you time, let me know what you think) for the team.
What could possibly go wrong?
How the story ends
The team returns from their quest, which usually involves a lot of research, to present their findings and recommendations. They are excited by what they discovered and eager to continue their work. They conclude their presentation and turn to you, eagerly awaiting your response.
If you started with #1
Thinking of all the freedom you gave at kickoff, and sigh. “That’s good work but we already knew most of that. We wanted you to push our thinking, but I don’t see a lot of new here.”
The team nods and tries to point out the new insights but to no avail. The gather their things and walk out. At best they feel dejected, like they failed an important test. At worst, they’re angry, feeling like the whole exercise was a trap. They know you’re disappointed and, as a result, the end is near.
If you started with #2
Thinking back to the dozens of files you gave them at kick-off, you lean forward and say, “That’s good work but we already knew most of that. To be fair, you built on what we had but why did it take so long?”
The team looks at each other, trying to hide their confusion. They built on what you gave them and delivered it on time. Not knowing quite what to say, they gather their things and walk out. Frustrated, they feel like they were set up to fail. After all, why would you give them so much time if you didn’t want them to use it? They know you’re frustrated too and brace themselves for the repercussions.
If you started with #3
You think back not to the kickoff but to the meeting after that, the one where the team presented their research plan. You take a deep breath and say, “That’s good work but we already knew most of that. To be fair, you did warn me that might be the case. I can see where some things shifted and where we gained new insights.”
The team nods and lays out the implications of their findings. They layout the milestones between today and a potential launch, and detail next steps to hit the next milestone. As before, you debate the insights and the plan, ultimately coming to agreement on what happens next. The team gathers their things and leaves the room, motivated to continue their work
What went wrong?
Three stories began but only 1 is on track for a “happily ever after.” The first two stories began with such promise, but they ended with dejection, anger, disappointment, confusion, and frustration. Why?
If you started with #1, you set unrealistic expectations. As a leader in the organization, you know more about the business than the team so it’s not realistic to expect the team to tell you something you don’t know. As someone with years of experience in the industry, you know that things don’t change overnight so even research that’s a few years old is still probably more right than wrong. Expecting the team to “push your thinking” and tell you something you don’t know isn’t realistic. Worse, it’s not fair.
Orders, not ownership
If you started with #2, you made it very clear from the start that you’re the expert by telling the team to take past work as a given and build on it rather than question it. You probably also gave them a timeline and told them to come back to you at the next milestone. You did all this to help the team work efficiently and you wanted them to feel ownership, to question the work and take the time they need, even if it’s less than the time given. But the team did exactly what you asked because you gave them orders and, in most companies, success comes from following orders.
What went right?
What did you do in #3 that put the team on path to “happily ever after?”
You were honest and transparent about past work. By sharing past work, you made it clear that you trusted the team to think critically and creatively, to analyze past data and make decisions about what should be kept, questioned, and discarded.
You invited the team to challenge you. When you shared the past work, you gave the team insight into your current hypotheses and biases. By admitting that you’re not tied to past work, you made it clear to the team that you were open to discussion and willing to change your mind.
You empowered the team to take ownership. By asking the team to review past work then come back to you with suggestions and plan, you gave them ownership of the process. When they left that first meeting, they were responsible for the work AND how the work got down. They were project owners now
The End (almost)
Good intentions aren’t enough to set innovation projects and teams up for success. How you start the story by setting expectations and empowering the team has a huge impact on how the story progresses and whether or not it ends “happily ever after.”
How do you start your stories?