To get the right start – innovation needs leadership

Quad-4-x1-V1 route+teamLeaders can’t have all the ideas and certainly don’t have a monopoly on the best ideas nor the answer all innovative challenges.  However, when radical new ideas are needed in an organisation,  leaders do need to offer some direction to steer and guide the teams which are trying to innovate. In short, they need to lead.

Some early preparation will give innovation the best chance in any organisation, help in the definition of your goals and help in meeting them later.

Three things that leaders can do to:

  • Create the right environment
  • Build the team
  • Set initial direction

These suggestions are specific and targeted at particular innovation challenges I have found over 20 years.  Although I point to the need for leadership action, it’s worth noting that “Top Management Support” itself is not a sure way to improve the success of innovation (Cooper, 1987).  The support and intervention needs to be right.   So – what support is needed ?  and what can we practically do to make it happen ?



In most organisations, most people are busy getting on with things as they are – from production to planning, finance to customer service.  However complex, variable or unpredictable an organisations and their processes– much of the whole environment tends to be designed to make routine tasks as efficient as possible. This is a worthy aim and can set the style for the majority of business activities.

Innovation is different by its nature is it not routine – it creates something new,  perhaps radical and this can be tricky within an efficiency focused eco-system.

Realistically, many organisational environments are not supportive of innovation.

Any organisation, however informal follows conventions, rules and stakeholder interests. As more formality develops, organisational budgets, commitments and procedures are put in place to achieve consistency and efficiency.  Getting all these environmental factors to align in the established way while making an innovative intervention – making some change happen – can be a daunting task.  When you embark on a new product design or a change to an existing  process it is likely that this work will impact the existing eco-system:  sometimes in a challenging way, causing tension; ideally in a wholly positive way – though this can be hard to see at the time. Such tension can cause worthwhile innovations to fall short, get cut by organisational politics or never get off the ground at all.  Innovation needs to be guided, rather than bound by existing conventions – not least because the innovation may question or change these very conventions.

Though innovators have their part to play – and need a dose of the much used buzz-word “empowerment”- creating the right environment for innovation needs proactive leadership from senior management.   To allow innovation to succeed judgement needs to be applied concerning the environment rather than micro-managing with continual intervention (Cooper, 2011).  Which rules and regulations should be followed, which should be bent a little and which would be best not enforced in this case ? For the process minded, leaders need to understand the firm’s innovation or New Product Development process;  what their role and responsibilities are (Cooper, 2011) and how the process should interact with other company processes. This may require some innovation on the part of the leadership team.

It is unwise and possibly unfair to leave creating an environment where innovation can flourish to the innovator or team trying to create something new.


Team building has been a hot management and consulting topic ever since the notion was put out  that some teams work better than others.  Innovation can test all parts of a work eco-system and team dynamics can make a huge difference.  Making innovation a team game is not easy. Investment in team building needs to suit the scale of your ambitions and not take undue attention from the business of innovation. Firm team foundations at the start can be added to later whereas setting off without any provisions can soon turn a proposed team into a race to get away in all directions.  Team catharsis in the midst of crisis is, amongst other ills, very time and energy consuming.  Sometimes it is necessary, but what can we do to avoid a team crisis ?

Four considerations I have found critical to build a team and good dynamics at early stages of innovation are:

  • Choice of team members
  • Cohesion
  • Communication
  • Collaboration

The science of choosing team members is widely documented and blogged about by specialists in the field.  They often rightly focus on the interdependence of members of the team – which goes beyond everyone simply getting along.   A good team for innovation often needs diverse personalities and perhaps complementary attitudes to the challenges ahead.  Considering exemplary work on helping individuals playing to their strengths in team roles by Meredith Belbin (Belbin Associates, online) for example can help.

If your talent pool is limited – for most leaders this is the case – then you probably don’t have a blank sheet to design your team on. A benefit of considering the Belbin or similar analysis is that it may help get the best out of your existing team or identify small changes that have a big positive impact – such as your next recruit being a complementary character.  A word of caution, these are not quick fixes  – I have found that if time is short, understanding often is limited too and these technical tools can distract and disturb some people.  So use with care.  However, skilled application of these or similar tools with can bring long term and wider benefits too.

Project teams need to get things done as well as work well together,  so it’s a simple notion to realise that we will need to access the range of practical or functional skills needed along our innovation journey.  To consider the skills you will need, look wider than the design or development work itself.  The total team build up often means drawing together team members from other functional teams and departments – people and teams which may be affected by your innovation work as well as contribute to it.  With the right approach  may also help with both diversity and to build appropriate support dynamics.  Both the unexpected and the risky parts of your programme will need to be considered too; so don’t focus only on the core work, reach out to co-opt part time expertise in specialist areas.

Cohesion: team building activities are a popular expense.  A week building rafts in the grounds of a country retreat may be valuable, especially if team members don’t know each other at all.  Such events often help overall team cohesion if you can get folks to engage. More simple,  human scale events – a team coffee break or team meal can bring remarkable benefits.  But what about maintaining healthy team dynamics day to day and one to one “on the job” – getting on with things day in day out ? A key component of this is the right, regular communication.

Communication, the lack of it or the quality and currency of it can have a huge influence on the making or breaking of a team engaged on an innovative project. Communication in some form is an every-day part of innovation and, in my experience, one of the key things to get right.

There are no sure-fire solutions, but too often communication is considered in too narrow a context – for example a focus on the need to keep the team informed of “what is going on”.  There can also be an expectation that a project or programme manager (or management team) can ensure that each person is appropriately informed with what they need to know.  In any scale of team, this is expectation is unrealistic, not least since the need-to-know nuances of any issue are often different for each role.

Folks often get task focussed – sometimes rightly so – this can be good for progress (in what direction?), but bad for communication.  This can develop such that the vital collaborative thread of a “Dear team” email may be lost on them even if they take time to read it.  We also know the well worn adage that “communication is a two way street”,  so that highly focused individual may be keeping silent on something that is valuable to someone else.  Here we move in to the area of reporting.

Communication or reporting “upward” in an organisation can often also be fraught with difficulty and perceived risk such that few team members relish it.  Complicated graphs, thermometers and weasel-word prose are too familiar proof of the complaint. Any format which is difficult to create or interpret can even encourage obfuscation when bad news needs breaking.   Though they may be valuable to the skilled or specialist reader, folks often don’t see these communications as involving them – unless perhaps it shows their daily target progressing.

Can one solution improve on these challenges – communication intra-team and reporting – getting the basics of the right message to a wide audience ?  I have become a fan of a particular form of team derived dashboard with a strong element of “self-service”.

Simple self-service dashboards can help with a range of team communication though  implementation takes some attention to detail

Here’s an example.


teaminnovation dashboard

I find that implementation of any communication improvement needs a leadership push because of the bad name that reporting often has and the perception that it’s a waste of time. I find that this often stems from bad reporting format and the common perception that communication needs to be clearer from “everyone else”.

My suggestions for starting a simple, local dashboard for a mid size team (up to around 50 staff) involved in creative, innovative work :

  • Simple format – start with plan text, minimise charts and dials – at least until the discipline is established – and then keep them simple and relevant.
  • Standard, specific headings – Try to standardise across projects or work-package
  • One sentence reporting – don’t allow acres of text – complex issues should be reported separately and references provided where necessary to allow more in-depth consideration. A dashboard is a headlining tool, not a full report.
  • Use colour – keep the readings visual with a RAG (Red-Amber-Green) status
  • Simple to use and universal – quick to update, use your most common office tools.
  • Easy to access – as far as practical, show the whole team. “Publish” it at a standard location so it’s always available rather than sending out a copy.

Read more about dashboards for innovation in a post coming soon.

Collaboration is to innovation what glue is to chipboard. Without it, things turn to dust.  It’s an another area where early setting of “the rules of the house” can bring enduring benefits.  Successful collaboration is complex with intangible,  tacit elements and high success can come down to the fit of individuals.  Sometimes there is a natural “fit” – either a meeting of minds on approach or conversely a beneficial tradeable skill in a pairing.  But can we help the match-making process ?

A good start is trying to identify who, or while roles “should” be collaborating.  Setting this down can encourage some new links and help some natural structure to develop.

A, useful analysis for a leader to consider is a RACI matrix.  There is more than one format of this matrix and the uses of RACI are wider than for collaboration, but I’d like to see how it serves a specific purpose here.

A RACI matrix looks like this:

20140901 RACI V2 - Matrix

RACI matrix format

The critical starting point to making it work are the definitions of R-A-C-I as follows:

Responsible + Accountable Consulted + Informed

The R (Responsible) and A (Accountable) markers are the most formal part of the matrix and are clearly good regular “management speak” to see how each person is pinned to each task.  However, if any team member looks down  their column to find their R markers then along for the C (Consult) and I (Inform), a different dynamic should develop.  To some extent, the same applies to A markers.

20140901 RACI V2 READING

Reading a RACI matrix for collaboration

Consult (C) markers tell you who your collaborators are – who you should be talking to 

Consult (C) markers tell you who your collaborators are – who you should be talking to . . . . before you have made key decisions or taken action  while the Inform (I) markers give warning of who you should be ready to tell – and potentially to justify your actions to.

Naturally, there’s more to do to bring a deeper culture of effective collaboration, but this is a good place to start.

I found a insightful guide and review of RACI from a talk by Alan Stanbra from DNV UK Assurance & Sustainability given at a branch of the Chartered Quality Institute.

The whole presentation is here:

Trust the tinyURL ?  – Preview before going there:


Teams often find it hard to agree on what do to when innovation is the goal.  Strong, differing opinions on direction can result in disagreement.  People tend to hate and avoid such conflict – it’s stressful and feels like time wasting.  This can build up new tensions from lack of coordinated effort and calls for “everyone to work together”.  Yes – but work on what ?

Even if the goal for innovation is clear, often the best route to get there is not.  Setting off in the right direction can be critical to success, especially in time-sensitive markets but also in any project looking to minimise costs – or at to achieve good value for money.

Since every innovation project is different, there are not of course sure-fire rules of what direction will bring certain success.  The characteristics of good direction setting for very innovative work, may be different to that for more routine parts of an organisation.

Innovation team members need steering advice that the leader believes in and sticks to.

Final, enduring decisions are often difficult and time consuming to make.  In innovation it is rare that everything can be set in stone at the start.  If it can, then the innovation gain may in fact be marginal – since we are relatively sure of an outcome at the start.

Direction is, as it implies a steer, it is a direction of travel.  It may not be a final choice. 

This often means making hard choices and sometimes making them at a time when the direction of travel is  needed. This may be before you have all the facts you’d like. Equally, deciding what not to do can be amongst the most difficult and the most critical.

Identify issues where direction needs to be set.

  • Set direction that you believe you can stick to, but make clear when it will be reviewed.  Remind people what you’ve said – be it a direction with a final choice later; your best guess today, or a steer that you expect will not change
  • Start off in the direction of a nearby target – something vivid and achievable.  Celebrate when you get there. Make clear if the direction is going to change and why.
  • Find a way to improve or test your direction of travel at an appropriate early point. The teaminnovation approach to planning innovation is based on early milestones which demonstrate to a key stakeholder or reduce a critical risk.  These in themselves help set and test early direction.

Approaches for setting direction are, of course a vast topic in itself.  Here’s a few guidelines for a leader relevant to setting direction promoting or starting innovation:

  • OPTIONS: Formulate & document options. Don’t prejudice less conventional options at this stage. It may be that an idea that is off the scale helps inspire an improvement to a more likely option.
  • ANALYSIS: Consider pros and cons of the options. Do it objectively – not to prove that your gut feeling was correct.  Cons will include the risks associated with the unknown. There are various methods to assess risk but what is key in this context is that by setting direction you will be able to progress some big, over the horizon issues that may not be fully resolvable today.   Direction is set for now with some knowledge of risks.  Leaders do need to recognise that a risk may occur – even if it has been identified and acted on !
  • CHOICES and NOT-FOR-NOW: Make and document a choice, ideally with some basic reasoning.  When you document key decisions on direction, also document the front running choices that you have rejected.  This may be key to keep any “loosing” party engaged with the direction you have chosen.

Now that’s better

There is a widespread view that one of the key factors in Product Innovation success – a very common aim of innovation –  is senior leadership engagement and actions (Cooper, RG 2011).

The support that is needed needs to be more than “I’m right behind you”. Leaders need to do more than make encouraging noises and listen a weekly review.  This is widely recognised by progressive firms, academic and research organisations.

The right leadership helps to engage and manage key stakeholders to ensure that their expectations are met.  Careful leadership and direction improves efficiency of the innovation programme and can save the frustrations of the innovation team, who are often stretched with sorting out the core of the new product, service or process.

The techniques highlighted in this post are largely standard tools.  Like all tools, however, the choice of tool is a key factor. Additionally,  I have looked at how to adapt or focus implementation for use in innovation.   I hope that this post provides some starting points from my experience.   References below provide some further reading.

Elsewhere  I’ve found limited practical guidance on what leaders can best do to help promote innovation.  Perhaps you have ? Do comment below.


Barsh, J (2008), ‘Leadership and innovation’, McKinsey & Company. Accessed 7 Sep 2014,

Belbin Associates. ‘Belbin team roles’ [Online], accessed 30th August 2014.

Cooper, R, & Kleinschmidt, E (1987), ‘New Products: What Separates Winners from Losers?’, Journal Of Product Innovation Management, 4, 3, pp. 169-184

Cooper, RG 2011, “Benchmarking Best Practices Performance Results and the Role of Senior Management”, Accessed 30 Aug. 14

Stanbra, Alan 2010. “RACI approach”. Published 7 September 2010 Chartered Quality Institute Wessex . Alan Stanbra talk on EFQM.  Accessed 5 September 2014. .  Presentation Accessed 5 September 2014.

Van Riel, A, Lemmink, J, & Ouwersloot, H 2004, ‘High-Technology Service Innovation Success: A Decision-Making Perspective’, Journal Of Product Innovation Management, 21, 5, pp. 348-359

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