Modern Innovation Leadership

Lord Kelvin's Ampere Balance
Lord Kelvin’s Ampere Balance

There are two main typical approaches to leadership. Some people think that a leader is a man with strong convictions and an own vision that can convince people to accept his own ideas. Other ones think that a leader is a man who understands the needs of the group and has the capability to organize and coordinate it in order that the group can reach its own objectives. The main differences are related to the how the vision about the group is created, the former one proceed from a single person, and the latter one is gathered from all the people in the group.

These different trends are common in any field of management. In fact, it is a matter of strategic thinking. Strategy is what is defining the characteristics of the required leader. If strategy is provided by senior directorate the organization will need a leader with the ability to convince people about the goodness of the managing actions. If strategy proceeds from the ideas and information of employees the leader required would be someone with empathy to meet other people and get their ideas.

I do not like analyses that turn everything into black or white. Leadership can be analyzed better if we look at the organization from a systemic viewpoint. In a system all parts are providing a function and there are links between different parts of the system where the different agents exchange information.

I have a lot of years of experience as innovation manager in great organizations. The field of innovation is very complex. It is not so easy to simplify the role of an innovation manager to one of the previews visions of leadership.

In the construction of a building there is a person that has all the scientific knowledge for the construction (the architect) and there many people making little easy tasks. In this case, there is a clear need of an organization with a strong leadership to make the group work. Nobody discusses who must provide orders and who must receive them. What it can be discussed is which ones are the characteristics of the leader in order that the group accepts his leadership, but the knowledge of the architect is providing the authority to be the leader.

In the innovation world, knowledge is distributed among a set of experts. The knowledge of leader usually is not a source of authority. In this case, how the project is done will not be defined by the leader but by the group members. Leadership is required to provide cohesion for the group, to establish order in the activities of the group, and to make decisions when there is a conflict between the visions of two members.

Looking at the innovation as a system can be more productive than following old recipes about leadership. From a systemic viewpoint, innovation can be disassembled in several parts doing different task. We usually name agent to a part of a system that is doing certain tasks. In innovation, agents are not uniform. We cannot make a comparison easily among them. There is a formal organizational structure, where some member of the group has the formal role of the leader, because he has the authority required to access the directorate and the financial and material resources of the company. But there is an informal structure that depends on the company and the group members. This is common in any activity of the business; however, in innovation, the informal structure can become much more important than the formal one.

In innovation, there can be more than one leader. There can be a formal leader with the role of coordination and there can be different people providing the vision required for the activity of the group. Although this can sound odd for some managers this fact is usually formally accepted in the research field and in high technology engineering companies. This kind of organizations usually has a project management department that provides a formal coordinator to the project but can have the same staff level that other engineers working on it. Project manager is the professional agent that makes the management related activities but the vision about how the project must be done from a technological viewpoint can proceed from a different person usually known as scientific leader. Both the project manager and scientific leader are critical in order the project can be accomplished. Here, classical recipes for leadership are not useful, it is necessary to establish some equilibrium between the management and technology leaders. A lack of this kind of equilibrium would drive the project to fail. Imagine a “great” technology leader convincing people about doing the things following a way far from the corporate policies without a good management leader to compensate that influence. It is more important the balance between leaders than great abilities to convince people, because this kind of conflict is very common when the scientific leader searches for effectiveness in order to preserve the influence in the organization and this effectiveness can be threatened by limited resources, while the role of the manager is the search for efficiency and reducing the applied resources.

To implement this kind of organization can be unviable for the common innovation activity far from high tech industry, especially if leaders have been trained to impose their own criteria. Introducing innovation a highly hierarchical organization is not easy, because it is necessary to establish new channels of communication and new way to share it, the authority of the hierarchical leaders is important but new informal leaders arise that can provide value for the process. To design and make that the new system works is the role of the innovation manager that has not an easy work. One of the main tasks is to understand how the process is working and to balance the discrepancies between the formal and the informal organization.

An example of this philosophy can be six-sigma. Six-sigma accept the need of a new organization for the improvement and creates a parallel organization with black belts and green belts, following its own nomenclature. The process only can work if there is a great compromise from the senior directorate, in other case, the old hierarchical organization would suffocate the new one.

Most innovation systems are working with similar schemes, however, innovation usually prefer the informal structure. Instead of creating a parallel formal structure that increases the complexity to manage the business, modern innovation structures are supported by a little formal corporate structure with the capability to gather information and resources all over the company that identify informal innovation leaders and support them. They establish some formal structure in the process through formal procedures and they put some effort in the use of the informal organization. In this way, the process is under higher uncertainty than in the case of six-sigma; however, this can have other additional advantages.

The kind of leadership that this innovation scheme requires is a mix of the initial ones. You need that the technological staff identify you as a proper leader that understand its ideas and ways of working, and you need that the hierarchical managing staff perceives you as a someone driving an important process for the sake of the managing staff that has the proper vision about how the process must be implemented all over the organization. Then, the innovation leader turns into a critical asset because it is very difficult to find a manager with the competences required to follow effectively both ways of leadership.


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