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The critical attributes of innovation leaders

By Professor Jean-Philippe Deschamps  (August, 2006)

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Executive champions
Innovation leaders are those senior "executive champions" who stimulate, support, steer and sustain innovation in their companies. They share six specific attributes that distinguish them from other type of senior corporate leaders:

  • A combination of creativity and process discipline
  • An acceptance of risks and failures, coupled with an urge to make their staff learn from them;
  • The courage to stop projects, not just to start them, and discernment as to when to persist vs. pull the plug;
  • The talent to build and steer winning teams and a knack for attracting and retaining innovators;
  • Openness to external technologies and ideas and an urge to get their staff out to broaden their horizon;
  • A passion for their mission and innovation and an ardour for sharing their passion with their staff.

Front- and back-end leaders
Not all innovation leaders are equally talented at steering the "fuzzy front-end" of innovation, where the emphasis is on applied creativity, and the "speedy back-end", which requires a lot of implementation discipline. Perfectly balanced innovation leaders should be able to steer innovation projects from A to Z, but there are very few of them. Most leaders have a "default" mode of operation. On one hand, front-end leaders tend to focus on exploration and experimentation. They encourage the search for unarticulated customer needs and promising technology ideas. They tend to authorize innovators to break rules and create a challenging environment. Back-end leaders, on the other hand, are process and execution-oriented people who have the discipline, operational knowledge and the urge to commercialize innovation. Both front-end and back-end leaders share some common characteristics, notably a strong personal credibility based on their innovation track-record, a strong personal attachment to their products, services and customers and a similar level of passion, even though it may be expressed in very different ways. Innovative companies should make sure they have an adequate and balanced number of front-end and back-end leaders in their top management group.

Different types of leaders for different innovation strategies
Characterizing innovation leaders according to their generic traits and their front-end or back-end orientation is not sufficient because innovation does not come in one single flavor. There are different types of innovation strategies and each requires a different type of leader. If we look at the four dimensions of an innovation strategy:

Its objective — Why innovate? To reinforce a current business or create a new business?

Its focus — Where to innovate? Products or services or "systems".

Its intensity —-How much to innovate? Radically or incrementally?

Its boundaries — With whom to innovate? Internally or with partners?

They determine four broad innovation thrusts and each require a different type of leader!

For the creation of totally new product categories or service offerings, companies need "mentors", trusting but challenging leaders capable of setting up and steering venture teams and leading them to market. Their focus should be on sponsoring, i.e. providing resources and top management support to the teams, shielding these teams from the traditional encroachment by the prevailing administration that would divert them from their objective, and coaching them through the usual ups and downs of most innovation projects. For steering totally new business models or system innovations, companies need "architects", visionary but pragmatic leaders who are able to assemble internal and external providers of system elements and make them work smoothly together. Their focus should be on visioning, because innovative new business models are generally the fruit of a compelling vision, master-planning to ensure all implementation steps are recognized and handled, and partnering with all external system component suppliers.

For the conception and delivery of new/improved customer solutions, companies need "conductors", diplomatic but demanding leaders who will implement the move from products to solutions. Their focus should be on interpreting customer or consumer insights to address and enhance their real "experience", orchestrating the interplay of different actors who will provide an element of the solution and integrating their input in order to make the solution truly seamless.

For new and improved product development performance, companies need "sports coaches", supportive but tough leaders able to motivate their teams day-in, day-out to exceed their development objectives in terms of quality, time and cost. Their focus should be on challenging their teams, forcing them to keep upgrading and speeding up their process, setting (stretched) goals and measuring performance against these goals.

The role of corporate management
Concretely, it is the responsibility of corporate management to ensure that the leadership style of its corporate officers is compatible with, and supportive of, its innovation strategies. Each company should make its chosen innovation thrusts clear to all its staff and assess whether it has the necessary cadre of leaders to lead these thrusts.

Professor Deschamps teaches innovation leadership in the Mastering Technology Enterprise and the Driving Strategic Innovation programs.

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