The Role of a Leader in Driving Innovation

Updated: Apr 21


Over the past 18 months, I’ve run Design Thinking workshops and ‘Ideathons’ for dozens of organisations. Whilst we always finish the sessions with an excellent range of pragmatic, ambitious and some down-right crazy ideas, the problem with most corporate innovation initiatives is the follow-up, or lack thereof. Or, more specifically, does this suggest a lack of innovation strategy from the leadership team?

Admittedly Design Thinking has become a bit of a trend nowadays, but I still see it as the best way for a company to obtain a common terminology, and a framework for the non-designers among us, for the increasingly essential innovation. It doesn’t matter anymore what industry you’re in, innovation is one the top 3 topics occupying the CEO’s mind.

Even firms in traditional industries are now recruiting data scientists without even fully understanding what they do, how they do it, and what potential there is from leveraging the data.

What happens therefore, is the participants come away from the sessions excited, motivated, full of ideas and confidence, and then hit the corporate brick wall. Boxes have been ticked, employees are happy with the training, but the follow-through just seems too difficult and time-consuming.

So, if you’re a leader trying to help drive innovation within your firm, what should you be doing to ensure a higher chance of success? Some do this very well, others not so much so.

Here are some of the slightly-tongue-in-cheek characteristics I’ve observed from corporate leaders when it comes to innovation training:

Head in the Sand, Not Needed. These leaders don’t see a need for change or innovation, and weren’t supporters of the training in the first place. In their eyes, things are working fine, and innovation will just cost a lot of time and money, and bring about a loss of jobs.

Not My Job, I’m Paying for the Training. Sometimes you meet leaders who know something needs to change, are prepared to pay for the training, however don’t see it as their job to follow up afterwards. They sit on their lofty perch directing orders but fail to realise the overwhelmingly positive impact of leaders fully buying into the process.

Means Well, Doesn’t Have a Clue. This is a ‘nice’ leader who wants to help and shows enthusiasm but everyone in the group knows they just don’t get it. Ideas suggested are the same as old initiatives or expose a huge gap in their knowledge. It’s difficult to get annoyed at them when their intentions are genuine, but everyone thinks they should know more.

Wants to Help, Won’t Keep Quiet. Everybody knows this type of leader and there are plenty of them! They genuinely want to help, but don’t realise they dominate every conversation and impose their ideas onto a subordinate group. In their haste to contribute, they forget the power their position gives them and stifle the ideas from the quiet members of the team.

Very Keen, in the Trenches. Now, that’s more like it! This leader helps drive the workshop, understands the need for it, and participates in the training. They believe in being alongside their team and contributing towards the conversations. Fully immersed, they sometimes forget their role as leader, but is that a bad thing?

Fully Supportive, Knows their Role, Sets Direction. This leader is helping to set the innovation strategy for the firm, and knows the value training can have when implemented properly. They’ve initiated a 6-month firmwide challenge, and made funds available to further develop winning concepts. They don’t have to be involved directly in the training but will visit and talk to participants, ensuring they follow up with their direct reports. This leader is rare, but they do exist and can help drive a company forward to keep market position.

So, there you have it, six types of leaders I commonly see in my work. It’s not all bad as there is some fantastic work being done out there, just not enough in my opinion.

What I have seen some companies do well is to publicly throw their support behind the newly generated initiatives, most commonly through something like an ‘Innovation Challenge’ where the prototypes are viewed and voted on by top management.

Some also provide funds to the winners to further develop their prototype into a minimum viable product. The added value this brings to the employees is that they feel they’re being heard and their ideas are being taken seriously, even though they might not be involved in the implementation.

Like most corporate training, it’s vital that there is a follow-up plan if you want to maximise ROI. It can be as simple as line managers following up with their team members post training and providing support for them to display newfound behaviours. In innovation, the question I hear most is, ‘what next?’ and it’s a valid one.

Like most good things, it starts with a plan. More to come on this in following articles. I'd love to hear your views on this in the comments below!

If you enjoyed this article and would like to finds out more how you can your leadership drive innovation and how to have this culture in the organization, visit us at https://www.ctsolutionsglobal.com/innovation-design-thinking or contact enquiries@ctsolutionsglobal.com

Mark Stuart is a professional speaker and trainer that specialises in Innovation, Design Thinking, and Leadership in a Digital Age. He lives in Singapore but travels globally for work.

#innovation #designthinking #management #Leadership #personaldevelopment #organisationaldevelopment #leadership #HighPotential

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