Ideas for Leaders #588

Innovation Leaders Turn Creative Ideas Into Action

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Key Concept

Many companies recognize the importance of innovation yet continue to be ineffective innovators. The reason: their leaders lack the right skills to encourage, manage and implement innovation. Recognizing that innovation requires a structured process, multiple perspectives, silo-busting boundary-free and polarity thinking are important first steps.  

Idea Summary

Whether developing new products or services, refining internal processes, or creating disruptive business models, innovation is the key to sustained competitive advantage. Many companies, however, are unable to meet their innovation goals. In a recent Center for Creative Leadership white paper, authors David Magellan Horth and Jonathan Vehar cite a survey of 500 leaders in which 94% acknowledged that innovation was important, but only 14% believed their organizations were effective at innovation.

Perhaps the greatest challenge of innovation is not creativity but implementation. Innovation efforts fail unless companies have leaders with the right skills to manage the innovation process, balance conflicting priorities and attract the range of contributions required for successful innovation. As much as two-thirds of the innovation climate in a company is defined by leadership behaviours, according to recent research. In short, innovation leadership is not coming up with creative ideas, it is turning those ideas into actions.

There are, however, challenges to such implementations — challenges that according to Horth and Vehar can be overcome through what they call the three foundations of leading innovation.

The first foundation of leading innovation is to manage the tension between the pressure of day-to-day priorities and the importance of finding ways to create new opportunities. The second foundation is to embrace the constancy of change. Change is difficult, and everyone in the organization must be prepared for its constant presence. Leaders themselves must be agile, which means letting go of the status quo. The third foundation is to take an enterprise-wide perspective. The best ideas will come from cross-collaboration and input from all areas of the organization — not from a few selected ‘creative types’.

Business Application

Horth and Vehar offer the following guidelines as starting points for leaders who want to become more effective innovation leaders:

  • Understand that roles and capabilities for innovation vary by leadership level. Individual leaders focus on developing creative ideas and solutions. Team leaders manage the processes and resources. Middle managers champion the projects. Functional leaders manage the pipeline of new products, processes and services. Executive leaders shape the culture and vision.
  • Focus on a structured innovation process that guides the organization through the four steps of innovation: understanding the challenge, generating ideas, developing solutions, and implementing the innovation.
  • Gather a variety of perspectives. For example, professor Gerard Puccio of the State University of New York at Buffalo developed four thinking profiles for innovation that parallel the four phases of innovation above: clarifiers explore the challenge, ideators generate ideas, developers craft and plan solutions, and implementers put solutions into practice.
  • Work across boundaries. Given the variety of tasks, and the variety of perspectives required to accomplish those tasks, innovation leaders must break down the silos, connecting people and resources across boundaries.
  • Embrace polarities. Polarity thinking replaces traditional, mutually exclusive ‘either-or’ thinking with a ‘both-and’ mindset. For example, innovation leaders don’t believe a choice must be made between delivering immediate results and championing a new process: both priorities are possible.
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Idea conceived

  • January 2015

Idea posted

  • March 2016

DOI number



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