Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Leader's role in Fostering innovation.

In my previous article "Leadership for Innovation", I had written about the importance of leadership in creating innovative culture in an organization. Continuing on the same thought, this article is about the roles a leader should play to foster innovation in an organization.

Essentially, the success of the organization is determined by the leaders ability to attract, retain, and develop people with right knowledge and skills and build a work environment in which employees can innovate and thrive, thus making the organization more competitive.

Leader's role in innovation is more about people management and providing strategic inputs. This typically breaks down into the role of:

  1. Visionary
  2. Facilitator
  3. Assessor 
  4. Advisor
  5. Provider


The most important role of a leader is to be a visionary.  A leader should be able to see ahead and tell his organization of what he expects to happen in future - which is of importance to his organization. This could be market conditions, market needs, competition, etc. Leaders should blend this forecast with their vision for future and direct their team to prepare for that future.

Successful leaders are experts in seeing what lies ahead and communicating this on continuously to their organization while constantly accessing their strategy and monitoring their tactics.

Leaders must see beyond their operational level to access the business environment and provide information and resources needed for innovation. This requires a deep understanding of the business environment and organization's internal capabilities.

In short, Visionary leaders:

  1. Provide continuous information on the organization and marketplace to subordinates
  2. Constantly access organizational capabilities
  3. Continuously communicate their grand vision of the future.
  4. Ensure that the organization understands the vision.
  5. Never underestimate the impact of constant change.


The second most important role of a leader is to play a facilitator. Having a vision, hiring creative & innovative people is not enough, Leaders must facilitate an active discussions around how innovations can help the organization, what those innovative ideas need to become a reality etc., Leaders must initiate & practice open communication with active listening, and provide ongoing encouragement as needed. By drawing out information from people, leaders may uncover a new set of capabilities and strengths that was not previously recognized.

Leaders play a very important role here by initiating an active discussion centered around innovation - particularly on what new things (products/services) the organization should do to capitalize on the future opportunities. Care must be taken to keep the discussions away from debating on the leader's vision for the future and all discussions must be centered on innovation and developing new capabilities to enable the organization capitalize on future opportunities.

In short, a facilitator must:

  1. Get everyone involved. 
  2. Encourage and support active discussions
  3. Ask open-ended, probing questions, using words like "Why", "What," "where," and "when." 
  4. Avoid debates and discussion on the vision.
  5. Avoid telling people what to do.  


During the process of facilitation, leaders will get a whole lot of suggestions and ideas. The role of leader in such situation is to provide candid, constructive feedback to keep the innovation on track.

Leaders must have the skills to access the idea and give a developmental feedback - which helps take the idea forward.  However, there will be ideas and suggestions that must be rejected. But even when rejecting an idea, the feedback must aid towards further development of options and ideas.

The assessment process must be quick and decisive, good leaders do not dither around making a judgment. A long drawn out assessment will kill enthusiasm in the organization, so leaders will have to move quickly and positively.

This is a "reality check" process enables leaders and employees to see all opportunities for developing and advancing the organization. A positive developmental feedback is so crucial in the innovation process.

In short, a Assessor must:

  1. Assess ideas or suggestions quickly.
  2. Provide specific, concrete, constructive feedback with examples. 
  3. Keep the ideas/suggestions around the organization's strengths and developmental areas. 
  4. Constantly act as a reality check within the organization - to prevent fanciful, futuristic ideas.
  5. Must not provide wrong feedback just to avoid confrontation. 


Leaders need not be innovators themselves - but they must guide the innovation. As an advisor, leaders help organization to capitalize on opportunities that lies ahead with innovation. This involves goal setting - asking the organization to develop an innovative product/service within certain constrains: Time, Money and resources.

Leaders set multiple goals considering the dynamic nature of business today. The job of the leader is to set these goals and let the employees comment on the feasibility, blockers and limitations, and then facilitate the team to achieve the goal - by becoming a provider.

Once the goal is set, leaders must provide advice: direction and clarity when needed.

As an advisor, leaders should:

1. Guide the innovation process
2. Set hard but achievable goals
3. Make sure everyone understands the goals and the constrains.
4. Set multiple goals to meet the demands of market conditions
5. Provide direction and clarity when needed.


As the innovation idea gains ground, there will gaps identified in the organizational capabilities to meet the goals. As a provider, leaders must pitch in with useful resources, contacts, and connections as needed to help the organization achieve the goals set by the leader.

Leaders get the bigger picture and have a better tab on the available resources within the organization and even outside. So when the need arises, leaders will have to step up and provide the resources needed for innovation.

Leaders have connections outside their organization, so when needed they can open up collaboration with external partners and provide vital connections. At times, leaders may not have access to the needed resources - then it is the leaders job to step up and reach out to stake holders to help out. For example, a CEO may approach investors for additional capital.

As a provider, leaders should

1. Identify the need for resources for innovation activities
2. Identify internal and external resources
3. Provide links and connections needed
4. Step up and ask for external help when needed.

Closing Thoughts   

Successful Innovation needs a strong leadership. Leaders need to play multiple roles to enable innovation. The road for innovation starts with a vision for the future, identifying the right opportunities, building the right skills and capabilities  to providing the required resources.

Leaders role in innovation is neither simple or easy. It is tough and demanding one - which must be executed flawlessly to create a innovative organization to remain competitive and win.

1 comment:

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