Want to Innovate? You Need to be an Innovation Leader : Here's How.

Girl leading girl scross river symbolising leadership

Sometime ago I got a call from a guy, I’ll call him Will, who was struggling with an innovation project. Will worked for a large pharmaceutical company. His major focus was on marketing, he was a relative newcomer to innovation.

I met up with Will and he explained that the project had got off to a good start but now they were having trouble getting the project through the next stage. There was a ‘gate meeting’ already scheduled, but there was just far too much to be done by then... Will had dark circles under his eyes. He said he was exhausted all day, but could not sleep at night. He couldn’t enjoy his weekends because he was constantly worrying about the project.

“What are your main areas of concern?” I asked.

He shrugged. “Where to start! This is a high profile project, yet the board have cut the development budget, and the launch budget already.” He took a deep breath. “In response, I scaled back the specification of the product, but we still need some work to be done on the concept.”

“Key members of the development team don’t attend the meetings, and blame it on their general workload. Between you and me, several of them are hopeless, and I’d love to get them off the team.” He shook his head ruefully. “I really don’t know if we can do it.”

“You don’t know?” I said. He shook his head again. I took a deep breath. “Well if you don’t know, and you’re supposed to be leading this project. It’s highly likely you can’t do it.”

Will looked up at me quizzically. Perhaps he had been expecting the patient, sympathetic side of me he was more familiar with. But I reckoned Will didn’t need that right now.

“Will, innovation is one of the hardest things to do in a large organization. There are so many forces conspiring to prevent change and innovation. The only way a team can succeed is with some real leadership.” I paused. “And if no one else is showing it – then you must.”

Will frowned. “But they just need to attend to their own bit of the project… and get on with it. I can’t be micro-managing everything they’re doing."

Will was confusing managing with leading. “No Will, they probably need some help to get them motivated.”

“But they‘re all experienced managers – I don’t know why they just can’t do what they do on their other projects - but on this innovation project."

That afternoon we barely touched on the specifics of the innovation project. Instead through a mixture of chatting and coaching, I encouraged Will to understand at a deeper level the challenges he was facing on the project.

Here are five key things that we covered:-

Choose Empowering Innovation Beliefs

We can belief whatever we want about anything. The important thing is whether those beliefs limit us or empower us.

Limiting beliefs about innovation are things like:-

  • This project is beyond the capability of our R&D resources.
  • Nine out of ten new product launches fail – so what chance does ours have?

Empowering beliefs about innovation are:- 

  • R&D will rise to the challenge of this project.
  • This is a highly original concept and if we work through it step by step we can make it a success.

I coached Will to turn his limiting beliefs about his project into empowering ones.

Tip : Choose empowering beliefs for your innovation project. It’s the positive belief that triggers the creative solutions.

Develop a Compelling, Inspiring Innovation Vision

Innovation teams often struggle with the uncertainty of what they're dealing with.

In everyday operations, product specifications are fixed and you can easily communicate them with samples or pictures. In innovation you are dealing with intangibles. The product specification can be in a state of flux for some time. To avoid confusion among the team and to keep them focused, anyone leading an innovation team needs to have a clear vision of what they are working towards. If there is only a rough spec initially then the innovation leader has to support the team by having a clear vision that encompasses things like what customer problem this concept will solve? Why is it so great? Why is it better than anything currently available? How it will benefit customers?

Sell That Innovation Vision Internally, Sell it Passionately

Be clear about your vision and be able to articulate it and sell it persuasively within the organization.

It seemed to me that Will did not have a clear vision of what the concept was all about. This made it hard for him to inspire the board.

Boards and funding committees have limited resources and mostly they are reluctant to take risks. They will more readily back concepts that relate most easily to current customers. and integrate most easily into the current portfolio . If your concept is less tangible and looks riskier, you are going to have to sell it even more persuasively.

Will’s project was an easy target for the board's budget cuts. Once they had cut the development budget and he failed to defend his vision, the board had no qualms about then cutting the launch budget.

Passionately selling the concept internally is as important as the quality of the concept itself. Don’t believe me? Remember how Will was losing his budgets. No budget, no progress.

Will was letting the team down. By not defending the project on their behalf, he was not valuing the efforts they had put in so far.

Tap Into Your Huge Resource of Creativity and Problem-solving Capability

Time and time again I see teams underestimate the power of their own and each other’s creativity to solve problems and get projects back on track. This one also ties back into beliefs. If you don’t believe that you can find a solution – then you probably won’t.

Respect and Believe in Your Innovation Team

Will needs his innovation team. There is no way he can deliver the project without them. But if he shows he’s lost confidence in them when he’s talking to me, they probably already know it too.

Innovation teams have to wrestle with all the uncertainty and ambiguity of innovation. This can be so uncomfortable that it may cause them to fail to show up or deliver their bit of the project.

A good innovation leader, recognizes the challenges the team faces and gives them permission to feel unsure, while supporting them as they find their way forward.

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