The Science of Innovation Leadership

Christoph Burkhardt Uncategorized

Innovation is about creating a status quo that is different from the current one. It does not necessarily mean creating a better place even though this is usually assumed when innovators attempt ‘to make the world a better place’. Leading innovation efforts means to lead ideas that create this new status quo.

A common misunderstanding evolved around the concept of leadership. In an attempt to lead the creation of something new und useful this misunderstanding is often counterproductive. While leadership is accurately defined as the leadership of people, of individual minds and their collective coordination towards a clear goal it is precisely this definition that gets in the way of innovation leadership.

While leadership is the process of guiding people to live up to their full potential, innovation leadership is the process of guiding ideas from their creation through evaluation, execution and diffusion so they can become successful innovation. Most ideas never make it through the complete phases of this process. They die along the way.

But are these ideas that don’t make it bad ideas? How do we know that we have selected the right ones to survive the pretty ruthless battle surrounding new ideas? Based on my work with corporations around the globe and hundreds of thousands of ideas and some amazing innovation too I have to conclude that there is only a very small correlation between the quality of an idea and its chances of survival. We can find an explanation for this phenomenon not in the practice of innovation management but in the cognitive sciences. My field of research has had different names over time. I find the most precise definition to be Social Cognitive Psychology. It overlaps with fields of Neuroscience, Behavioral Economics and Social Psychology and provides a much needed new framework to analyze and change innovation leadership in complex markets and larger organizations.

Here are three examples of how this new framework identifies an effective trigger for change and innovation:

Don’t focus on talent.
Focus on ideas.

“We don’t have the creative talent and we don’t have the resources to attract them.”

Many corporates try to fight a lack of innovative ideas with a change in recruiting strategies and then have a hard time attracting the high demand workforce they are looking for. Most of this workforce comes from tech related fields. While trying to attract them to a conservative setup and an industrialized way of working they work under the assumption that a new division of the company with the right new people will produce the necessary output. Unfortunately this very often turns out to be a massive waste of money and energy. First of all, attracting tech workers to a conservative work environment is incredibly hard and secondly to keep them productive once they have signed up is even harder. So instead of focusing on the heads you want forget about the myth of the creative genius for a second and focus on what really drives the innovation process: the ideas, their evaluation and execution and ultimately their diffusion. Most of my clients agree with me when I say that software architects aren’t necessarily best equipped to lead this process. From working with hundreds of organizations I can also confirm that there is no lack of good ideas. But there is a massive lack of process knowledge and hardly any culture of innovation.

Don’t confuse time with performance.
Fix your KPIs.

“Innovation takes so much time. We need to be faster.”

In many businesses the need to speed up time to market and other indicators of pace has become a common call to action. The feeling that the world is moving faster than the business is able to adapt to is not an illusion. In fact most businesses are not adaptive enough to survive. Yet, the need to be faster is not the same as the need to be adaptive. If you lead people you naturally focus on indicators of output and speed. When you on the other hand lead innovation you have to focus on a different set of indicators. The creation of new ideas as the starting point for innovation does not require a completely open ended process without any restrictions. In fact we get lost very often when there is absolutely no structure. The problem is not the time frame we put around the innovation process. The problem is the ubiquitous key performance indicator of performance itself. You need to treat time like any other resource. It is limited and valuable. So we shouldn’t waste any of it. But we need to make sure that time is allocated to the right projects in the right amount. Rather than asking how much time a project will require we need to budget how much time compared to other projects it deserves. Once this budget is set we can now evaluate how much can be done with the time given. Performance measures and KPIs of output evaluate performance in this given time but unfortunately they also change how we make use of the time given. If you spend 30 minutes to explore opportunities for new products you work very different from someone who is trying to come up with 10 new product ideas within 30 minutes. Allocating 30 minutes to innovation work means allowing the possibility to not find anything of value. This will lead to much greater output than the pressure to perform faster.

Walk the talk, don’t jump the line.
Take your business to the next level but not further.

“We need to be the Google of our industry and integrate new technologies into our portfolio.”

Ideas can’t be developed without a basis. Nothing new comes out of nowhere. Every human thought is based on something in this human’s reality. We build the next round of ideas and innovation on the shoulder of thousands of years of human thinking. It is not necessary for any business to come up with something completely outside their comfort zone. But it is necessary to take existing products and services as well as all the ideas that exist in the company and take them to the next level by constantly developing them further. The beauty of the human mind is that we can simulate not only the next stage of a product but also the step after that and the one after that. The challenge for most strategists in a corporate setting is not to jump to the customer or client needs of the future but rather to focus on developing a future version of their existing customers step by step. It is much easier to imagine something far removed from the status quo as if it was a science fiction scenario than it is to actually take the existing status quo to the next level.

Ultimately innovation success will come to those companies that acknowledge the need to protect, guide, nourish and grow ideas rather than people. To do this though you will have to know a lot more about the people you are dealing with as an innovation leader. To be innovative means to a large extent eliminating the most human traits for a certain period and leveraging the exact same trait at a different point in time. To me it is without question that the skills to do this – to lead innovation – will be in more and more demand over the coming years. Better start preparing now.

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