Topical Categories

What Role Does Leadership Play in Innovation? — Every Great Show Needs Great Directors & Producers!

I recently posted about the “Creative Geniuses” that are found throughout Jester organizations.  Again, each of us carries creativity within us.  Some of us may need coaxing in order for our creativity to reemerge.  For all, a certain amount of support and structures are needed in order for our ideas to manifest.

In the recent "Leader as Conductor," post, I outlined some specific ways that managers can foster innovation in organizations.  But in what capacities?  In his terrific white paper, “Creating the Innovative Culture: Geniuses, Champions, & Leaders,” Langdon Morris of InnovationLabs outlines two other essential types of roles necessary to create an innovative culture:  “Innovation Champions” and “Innovation Leaders.”  

 Innovation Champions:  They support innovation by helping creative people overcome the obstacles that otherwise inevitably impede their innovation efforts.

Innovation Leaders:  They define firms’ expectations and policies to favor innovation. 

Working in partnership, these two distinct role models set the stage for creating the environment to grow, direct, and apply the creative genius within an organization.  As Mr. Morris writes, “The genius of firms like Apple, Cisco, and Toyota… [is that] their leaders seem to have found a way to standardize the process of innovation.”  

INNOVATION CHAMPIONS build the practical means for effective innovation by:
  • “Finding creative thinkers and encouraging them [often through coaching and mentoring] to think and work in new ways” or to "seek new experiences that spark new ideas;“ and
  • “They create a regular operations context in which sharing and developing new ideas is the norm.” 

Champions might have any title in the organization, from that of senior manager to front line operations staff.  Regardless of title, they “provide the bridge between the strategic directives of senior managers and the day-to-day focus of front line workers.”

“Hewlett Packard’s MBWA (mgt.-by-walking-around) was a great innovation champion technique for learning about innovation efforts and supporting them.”

Innovation champions “are usually persistent networkers… [who] know what’s going on many levels.”  They know who has the skills, talents, and resources; who needs what; what’s not working, and what can be done to move the process forward.

In his best-seller book The Tipping Point, author Malcolm Gladwell outlines three roles he sees as key to the success of ideas taking hold in organizations.  As Mr. Morris sees it, all three of these mantles are embodied in effective innovation champions:

  • Mavens who have deep knowledge that they are keen to share.
  • Salesmen who like to influence others to take action.
  • Connectors who have strong relationships with many people.

Collaboration & Trust:
Champions forge collaboration and trust while also helping to develop infrastructures that support innovation.  This includes creating environments that allow for the face-to-face partnering that is indispensable.  “They build collaboration, and they build the trust upon which effective collaboration occurs.  Innovation is a collaborative endeavor… There is little innovation without collaboration, and there is no collaboration without trust.”

Film edit director All the World's a Stage…
My undergraduate degree was in theater (Go, University of Detroit!).  As one whose right brain is well developed and who naturally thinks in terms of connections and similarities, I'll share how I see the roles of champions and leaders in terms of the parts they would play in artistic productions, as in theater or film. 

I envision the role of champions as similar to that of theater or film directors.  Collaboratively honing the production vision, they take the various tools and perimeters; the scripts and story-lines; the stage/sets, budgets, and timelines given to them by the producers; the talents, experience, strengths, weaknesses, and personalities of the actors, design and crews — and they orchestrate all of these.

Sometimes, depending on the size and budget of the production, the role of director is shared and divided among various people who serve as executive director, art director, assistant director, etc.  Similarly, there is (or should be) more than one champion within an organization.

Champions and directors work with "the talent" to create a shared, organic vision and then to manifest it.  While keeping their focus on the progress of the various production teams, they also work closely with the individuals.  They coach the actors to explore and hone their roles and to interact in the most effective ways with the other cast members.  They work similarly with the design and set crews.   

Key to the success of many directors is that they develop trusting relationships with the various individual artists in order to bring out the best in their talents, while building the collaboration and high trust that is needed for great ensemble productions and (what is called in the non-theater world) high-functioning teams.

Enter the other indispensable player… 
INNOVATION LEADERS influence the core structures and the basic operations of an organization in order to support innovation.  Such core structures include:

  • The design of the organization
  • Policies and underlying principles – “The Rules of the Game”
  • Metrics and rewards.

In keeping with my theater arts metaphor, I think of innovation leaders as the "producers."  Without a producer’s backing, there will be no show.  Producers don't have to be particularly creative themselves, and they don't need to be involved in a hands-on manner.  Nonetheless, they either "set the stage," or else they sabotage the production by the resources they provide (or fail to) and the perimeters they establish.  Some leaders are creative themselves and will be involved artistically, just as some producers are.  (Examples of top leaders with a hands-on approach: Immelt at GE and Iger at Disney, who has helped to design games himself.)

Given that innovation needs to be treated as a strategic concern, “innovation leaders are typically, though not exclusively, senior managers” who have the authority to make key decisions, related to questions such as:

  • Do budgets include a line item such as “investment in innovation”? 
  • Are there seed funds to invest in promising new ideas, or teams of people to manage ideas that do not fit inside existing business units?
    — If not, then innovation isn’t likely to happen.

In his book, Permanent Innovation, Mr. Morris asserts, “There is no innovation without leadership… Top managers can be powerful champions of innovation, or dark clouds of suppression…. They [need to] work diligently to eliminate the many obstacles that otherwise impede or even crush both creativity and innovation.”  

In closing, dear audience… 

Hat’s off to those Champions and Leaders who orchestrate creative genius and make the great innovations that move us all forward possible!


English miss

(Blog author, on another stage, long ago… )


Click on the link to download a free copy of Langdon Morris' excellent book:  Permanent Innovation: The Essential Guide to the Strategies, Principles, and Practices of Successful Innovators

And for his white paper: "Creating the Innovative Culture: Geniuses, Champions, & Leaders"





“Capitalizing on Complexity

This study was conducted through interviews with 1,541 CEOs, general managers, and senior public sector leaders from around the world.

I.  Leaders’ Primary Concerns:

  • Global Climate Change.
  • Geopolitics related to energy and water supplies.
  • Vulnerabilities to the supply chains of food, medicine, and talent.
  • Global security threats.
  • Unprecedented rapid escalation of Complexity, due to increasing layers of interdependencies, environmental uncertainties, and the speed of technological change.

II.  Key Findings:

  • Only 49% said their organizations are sufficiently equipped to succeed in this increasingly complex environment.  In other words, more than half of the CEOs expressed doubt in their organizations’ abilities to meet today’s challenges.
  • Given that the rate of complexity is expected to accelerate, Systems-level thinking is required.
  • Most important leadership ability: Creative Thinking.

“They identify ‘creativity’ as the single most important leadership competency for enterprises seeking a path through this complexity.”

… Events, threats and opportunities aren’t just coming at us faster or with less predictability; they are converging and influencing each other to create entirely unique situations.  These first-of-their-kind developments require unprecedented degrees of creativity – which has become a more important leadership quality than attributes like management discipline, rigor, or operational acumen.”    Samuel J. Palmisano, Chairman, President and CEO, IBM

  • 3,600 students agree, rating creative thinking as the most important ability.

III.  Successful Organizational Leadership Applications:

“Standout” leaders who have leveraged creativity
to financial advantage over the last five years:

1.  Cultivate innovative organizational cultures:

  • They encourage experimentation and innovation throughout their organizations.
    • Versus relegating a few “creative types” to siloed departments.  
    • They encourage an organizational mindset of questioning and challenging assumptions.

2.  They continuously solicit new and original ideas.

3.  They regularly re-conceive their strategies, versus relying solely on formal, annual planning.

  • “With margins of error and windows of opportunity shrinking, they recognize they can no longer afford the luxury of protracted study and review before making decisions.” 
  • Top performing organizations are 54% more likely to make rapid decisions.

4.  They simplify and streamline operations in order to make their organizations more agile.

5.   They are comfortable with ambiguity and ongoing experimentation.

  • They take more calculated risks.

 6.  They are prepared to upset the status quo, even if it’s successful – no “sacred cows.”

 7.  They continually innovate with how they lead and communicate to better engage with new generations of employees, partners, and customers.

  • 58% prefer to persuade and influence versus  
  • 17% who prefer command and control

8.  Customer “intimacy” is of high priority.

  • They identified getting closer to customers in imaginative ways as most important strategic initiative of the next five years.
    • Using the Web and interactive and social media. 
    • Bringing customers “into” the organizations to “co-create.”

9.  They stressed the relationship between creativity and integrity.

  • They rely on deeply held values and a well-defined vision to provide the confidence and conviction needed to exploit narrow windows of opportunity.

IV.  Study recommendations for CEOs and leaders:

  1. Integrate creative elements throughout your organization.
  2. Form unconventional partnerships.
  3. Eliminate all communication barriers to improve the ability to handle the unforeseen.
  4. Use scenario planning.
  5. Question industry practices that seem obvious.  When you think you have the answer, ask “Why?” again. 
  6. Push tailoring to the extreme.
  7. Borrow from other industries’ successes.
  8. Strengthen your ability to persuade and influence:
  • Lead by working together toward a shared vision. 
  • Dare to relinquish some control in favor of building more mutual trust throughout the organization.
  • Don’t present your logic; discover logic with your team. 

     9.   Coach: Spark the imaginations of others.

    10.  Use a wide range of communication approaches.  Accept that for customers and employees alike, blogs, Internet presence, instant messaging and social networking are more credible—and often faster—than top-down communications. 


Embody Creative Leadership:

Reinvent Customer Relationships:

Build Operating Dexterity:

  • Embrace ambiguity
  • Take risks that disrupt business models
  • Leapfrog beyond “tried-and-true” management styles


  • Honor customers above all else
  • Use two-way communications to sync with customers
  • Profit from the information explosion
  • Simplify whenever possible
  • Manage systemic complexity
  • Promote a mindset of being fast and flexible
  • Be “glocal”



Blog Link

Kowabunga! Posts: