On a Personal Note: The Art of Innovation Leadership

It's been a while since we last posted on how leaders can create "safe spaces" for creative thinking and innovation experiments. Over the last few weeks we have been running various innovation and design sprints in order to observe some of theses practices in action. Besides being able to tweak our workshop toolbox here and there, we were again struck by the importance of the human dimension in driving innovation leadership. This plays out on various levels that we want to reflect on here.

The first dimension is the complex skills set required by innovation leaders as see; see here for a more detailed overview.


And of course the leader is not alone in this quest - needing to draw on the collective intelligence of his leadership team and also build an innovation support team with the right skills set. We like the IDEO Ten Faces of Innovation approach to team formation; also see link for more detail:
The Anthropologist
The Experimenter
The Cross-Pollinator
 The Hurdler
The Collaborator
The Director
The Experience Architect
The Set Designer
The Storyteller
The Caregiver

One of the other key learnings is that any innovation journey has a substantial cultural change dimension and this needs to be narrated well in order to get people on board. One of our favourite models is the SY Partners approach to what they call seismic change and these are some of the suggestions they have for transformational leaders:
1. Craft your story—and tell it.
Your new colleagues want to understand you as a leader. Find an opportunity to share your story and explain how your personal values and aspirations align with those of the company. When you’re confident enough to be a little bit vulnerable, it builds everyone else’s confidence that you’re a leader worth trusting and following.
2. Build your duos.
A duo is you + someone else. In times of uncertainty, you can lean on and trust in your duos—which is why it’s so important to build these relationships early on. So, identify the key duos that are going to be important for your work. Reach out. Extend trust before it’s extended to you, and build the relationship from there.
3. Know thy team.
It’s likely that you’ve inherited a team, and that they’re both excited and terrified by your arrival. Start by assuming the team has tremendous value it can contribute to the company’s future. Invest in understanding the team’s capabilities. Get curious about people’s working styles. Most importantly, realize that every single team member has a particular superpower—and it’s your job to make sure they get to use it.
4. Help your team find its purpose.
Every team tells itself a story about the job it’s there to do. But sometimes that story is out of date, or holds them back from work that’s truly worthy. So, gather the team. Dig in to people’s beliefs about the team and its value. Talk about the purpose of the organization, and ask team members to describe how the team has helped advance that purpose. Then refine or redefine your team’s reason for being—and brainstorm opportunities to contribute even more powerfully.
5. Listen, listen, listen. But don’t forget to act.
Leaders who challenge their own assumptions become far wiser and gain much more respect than those who try to establish authority too quickly. But that doesn’t mean you have to be passive. Make a couple of small key moves that demonstrate your intention to change things for the better.
6. Fall in love with your customer.
This is a good moment to remember that customers are a privilege. Get to know them genuinely, especially if they’re very different from you personally. Your connection to customers will help bring colleagues and team members along as they experience your authentic commitment.
7. Remember: Love, not fear.
It’s true that as a leader, you’ll do things that some people won’t like. Many might even decide they don’t like YOU as a result. You can’t worry about that. If you let your fear of being unpopular or of making the wrong move affect your decisions, the authenticity of your leadership will suffer. Instead, forge ahead and lead from a place of love. Let people see your humanity. Communicate authentically. Share the Why behind your decisions. Bring your full self to every challenge, and take 100% accountability for the outcome. Not only will you gain people’s trust, you’re likely to earn their enduring respect.

The final piece of advice brings us back to the "spaces for innovation" concept - both in the physical and more importantly in the mental mindset dimension. There has been some great recent work by both IDEO and Google on this.