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5 Essential Skills for Every Innovation Leader

Innovation leaders are faced with a very tough challenge, charged with both driving leadership in the traditional corporate sense, but also with facilitating internal innovation, or intrapreneurship, among their subordinates.

Canadian thought leader Lynn Sharatt defines innovation leadership as the “process of synthesizing leadership styles to influence employees to produce creative ideas and solutions to the problems that they encounter.” This might sound simple enough, but the key variable is “leadership styles” – there are countless options here and it can be incredibly difficult to know which will work best…

Meeting the Challenge

For those that can foster the trait, however, the incentives to become an innovation leader are obvious. A culture of innovation leadership at the helm of an organization is often cited as a key differentiator between companies that excel and fail within the same industry.

Take Apple’s visionary leader Steve Jobs – often regarded as the prototypical innovation leader – as an example. Jobs’ fervent belief in organization-wide creativity helped Apple to stand apart from its early competition. According to biographer Walter Isaacson, Jobs’ ability to “jolt innovation” among the company’s employees was the salient feature of his successful leadership of the company.

Yet becoming an innovation leader takes work and studies into the success of efforts towards driving innovation illustrate the difficulty of the process of becoming one.

A McKinsey Research article, for example, found that while 70% of executives surveyed said that they regarded innovation as a key driver of growth, a full 65% of them were only “somewhat” confident about the decisions they took to implement it.

If you want to take innovation leadership by the reins but don’t know where to start, here are five traits your leadership can adopt to inspire innovation throughout your organization.

Skill One: Risk Management

Innovation carries inherent risk.

Not rocking the boat is safe and introducing new practices and ideas to a business will inevitably cause friction. Yet, according to risk management expert Steve Culp, learning to professionally manage risk can actually stimulate, rather than impede, an organization’s innovation management process.

A thorough risk management audit, for example, can help identify a business’s blind spots. These are areas in which properly directed innovation can actually reduce overall business risk by addressing an Achilles heel that may have been missed previously.

Culp offers venture capital firms as examples of organizations worth learning from. VCs know in advance that most of their investments will fail, yet by properly managing risk they are able to ensure the overall profitability of their funds while simultaneously driving the success of some of the most innovative startups on the planet.

These techniques are worthy of emulation by every innovation leader.

Skill Two: Identifying Opportunities

In a white paper on innovation leadership, The Center for Creative Leadership explains some of the key differences between traditional business thinking and innovative leadership.

A central axiom of innovative leadership is the belief that there is always a better way to solve a problem. Precedent, while providing valuable guidance to inform future decisions, is also not an immutable force to be followed slavishly.

Given this worldview, innovative leaders are constantly seeking out new opportunities to improve existing business processes.

These successful innovation leaders are expert practitioners of the Japanese art of kaizen – or continuous improvement – a philosophy famously espoused by giants such as Toyota and Amazon and commonly applied together alongside the Six Sigma process improvement technique.

Skill Three: Thinking with a Strategic Perspective

Because innovation leaders largely exist within the confines of traditional corporations, bringing a strategic perspective to the innovation process is a vital skill for them to have.

As Langdon Morris observes strategy and innovation are intricately linked and “should be mutually reinforcing.” Adapting to change drives business strategy and innovation drives change.

An ongoing two-way dialogue between your leadership personnel responsible for setting the organization’s strategic and tactical road-maps, and those driving innovation is vital to maximizing the success of both.

Innovation must adhere to the overall aims of business strategy but that strategy should be flexible enough to pivot, where needed, to the disruption that innovation leaders seek to drive.

Skill Four: Generating Ideas

Innovation leadership involves seeking to make an entrepreneur out of every employee. It makes sense that they should, therefore, be encouraged to think and act like one.

Just as innovative leaders should constantly identify opportunities to lead from the top-down, they should encourage and empower their employees to function as equal stakeholders in the idea generation process, driving suggestions for change and innovation from the bottom up.

Beyond utilizing tried-and-tested internal methods such as brainstorming and mind mapping, provide employees with the freedom to engage in activities more usually associated with leadership or entrepreneurs.

This could take the form of networking with other businesses to share insights on emerging industry best practices, or setting independent meetings with industry thought-leaders to help develop the skills to challenge existing assumptions and workflows.

Empowering employees in this way will make innovation feel like a collaborative, team effort, and suffuse the disruption mentality throughout an organization.

Skill Five: Putting Action First

Concrete action is needed to make the above aspirations a reality.

With that in mind, here are some first action-items to help your leadership get started on the journey towards making your organization an innovation-driven company:

  • Set a meeting with your team to outline the value of innovation to your company. Communicate the main tenants of your innovation policy, if you have one.
  • In it, explain clearly the parameters of what you’re asking, and enabling, your employees to do, such as engaging in networking opportunities that appeal to them, or offering ideas for improvement via a company-wide Kaizen board.
  • Create a forum for discussing innovation on an ongoing basis. Delegate ownership of this to a team-member, setting the precedent for shared engagement with the process.
  • Learn the basic principles of risk management and institute a fixed procedure for assessing ideas in the innovation pipeline.


Innovation leadership is a process, but as examples make clear, it is one well worth investing in to maximize your organization’s success.

As Lynn Sharatt explains, innovation leadership is a concept that involves engaging in an ongoing effort to synthesize a number of different leadership competencies to best direct an organization to achieve innovation across departments and ranks. These five, core skills, are a perfect foundation to build off of, but the sky is the limit on how far you can develop yourself as an innovation leader.

Qmarkets Idea & Innovation Management Software Editions, a state-of-the-art platform backed by the power of crowdsourcing, are the perfect tools to help your organization manage the process of innovation leadership across the organization.

Contact Qmarkets to find out how to get the tools and best practice advice you need to lead innovation at your organization.

Ben Gross Author
Ben Gross

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