Innovation leaders are people who have a broad set of skills ranging from ideas to strategic implementation, perform generally much better, with higher company revenues, and with higher customer satisfaction and staff inspiration.

These leaders are inspirational, able to attract the best talent but also unafraid to ask the complex challenging questions that can transform people and organisations to the best they can be.

So what do you need to do to become one, and how do you maintain such reputation especially in cases where not all great ideas lead to incredible successes but also deep and risky failures?


Building innovation leadership from within

Continuing with insights from the Innovation Capital: How to compete and win like the world’s most innovative leaders book, there are several additional key factors that we need to understand if we want to embark on the journey to generate and gain innovation leadership.

Such leaders pay specific attention to three key things when it comes to attracting resources but also getting the job done:

The vision. You need to create a compelling vision, something so big that draws both investors, colleagues and customers toward it and creates both a thrilling buzz but also interest and a sense of ownership.

Most people want to work in places where they are part of a bigger vision, part of something greater where they see clear value and see themselves as being part of delivering the grand idea.

The idea has to be awesome, anchored in something familiar yet novel, and it has to be big:

“The key is emotional engagement, connecting with the emotional and social desires of supporters so that they want to bring their resources to the project because they think it is important, fun, exciting or just interesting” (p. 174).

The big idea will need to paint a picture of excitement that is not easily forgotten when things get rough, when ideas fail, and when technologies are not necessarily yet even available to fully fulfil the vision.

For example, Elon Musk wants to revolutionise both public and private transport and create a world that is much more sustainable and accessible, and offers a compelling vision for that purpose.


Strategic direction.A grand vision alone cannot deliver however what is needed if people cannot clearly see what steps need to be taken and where the opportunities lie for real change in progressing the vision forward.

This means identifying the “vectors of search”, the core defining characteristics of that vision so that people can see clear paths and clear mandates how to approach the grand vision.

Being specific for example in the vision about the target group for the new product, which market segment the new vision aims to capture (e.g. high-end electric vehicles), and how key concepts relate to each other (e.g. what comes next after conquering the high-end market) are all key building a shared direction.

This direction does not lock in irreversible decisions but allows still innovation and flexibility to flourish as people start debating and thinking how and which factors and processes are key as part of the direction setting process.


Setting stretch goals. Stretch goals in turn are much more specific goals that can be measured to show whether the team and idea are heading to the right direction.

Such goals are “those that appear unattainable, given current practices, skills and knowledge; they will require some innovation to achieve”(p. 175).

These are goals that push the boundaries of what is possible, and try to help the team to have greater aspirations than normally about the content of a product or an idea.

For example, Nike challenged the notion of that marathon could not be done under 2 hours and set out to develop a new shoe that would deliver ultimate performance and break the current record.

Setting inspiring and clear stretch goals means also that the team needs to continuously think innovatively and challenge the many existing assumptions how things can or cannot be done.


Talent, brand building and brutal honesty

 To be able to do all of the things above, you will also need to attract the best talent because you are embarking on something that often has not even been tried before.

This is where the power of awesome comes in handy: you need customers to go “this is awesome” and deliver a product or service that clearly enhances their lives but also generates positive surprises in areas they might not even thought of.

To begin the process, you need to use first principles thinking and first identify all the potential constraints on the process and idea.

This means you need to first “identify the key constraints to achieving a breakthrough in performance, and then you must test every option possible for eliminating one or more of those constraints” (p. 182)

But while recognising constraints remains key, so does also speaking out and challenging everyone’s assumptions.

Leaders who do this well use three key tactics in helping the team to speak up, debate and innovate in a manner that uncovers new angles and leads to new insights.

Innovative leaders in particular create safe environments where it is legitimate to challenge any assumption, where team members know that there is no harm to them in voicing a concern or an idea as leaders show clear respect and valuing of opinions, and where the leader champions new ideas and mentors and coaches the team even if these ideas do not always lead to success.

Building such an environment of psychological safety enables deeper and more honest exploration of some of the key fundamental assumptions that are made and close off faster blind spots and wrong directions.


Enhancing the organisational capability for innovation

Although much of this discussion has focused on specific roles and leaders, the authors offer a variety of insights into how some of these ideas can enhance the organisation’s overall capability to innovate.

It is clear from the research that companies that have mastered building a brand of innovation are much more likely to continue to attract resources and opportunities for further innovation:

“a company’s actual innovation capability- its capability to create new knowledge and new products and services- strongly predicted both the value of the company and whether the company had a reputation for innovation” (p. 197).

A stellar example that is used in the book is Amazon and how it has continued to innovate and explore and conquer new markets consistently.

A key strategy for Amazon to increase its organisational innovation capability has been a process where key ideas are able to be reported and pitched to a variety of departments and sectors across the organisation.

This strategy builds on developing first a mock up press release that imagines what the customers are saying about the product (the positive feedback), what the product or idea delivers and how, and how it has changed the market.

Next, a six-page document outlines the Frequently Asked Questions that customers are likely to ask about the product or idea, including solutions to customer problems that might arise in using the product or buying the service, and provides the team with an opportunity to think also how the earlier versions might fail, and how to safeguard against these.

The customer experience then is portrayed in much more detail, sometimes even accompanied by prototypes that can be used as early testing versions of the core ideas.

This process is known at Amazon as “working backwards” where the main guiding principle is that of customer obsession; the product must and should receive amazing responses and have in it the possibility to go big.

Many ideas are pitched daily at Amazon but only those with clear potential to go big are put in the next stages of attracting resources and moving forward.

Key for innovation at least in Amazon is to keep coming up constantly with multiple ideas, tolerate also failure, and enable faster testing and decision-making within smaller teams how credible and scalable ideas truly are.


Innovative leadership for climate adaptation

It should come as no surprise that all of this has led me again to think about the need for innovative leadership in climate adaptation but also how would we go about building a grand vision that unites and excites people.

But I am wondering whether enabling some of these key lessons in our organisations and on the ground could assist in at least faster identification of innovative ideas and what works?

I really like the idea of writing a future press release for an adaptation project or program and working backwards from there as to what effective adaptation should and could deliver to particular groups, followed by the FAQ list on the most common issues they might face.

Although climate adaptation projects as such might sound or seem rather different to companies and how they consider about innovation and leadership, I can see more and more clear linkages between these aspects. 

The problem we often do face, that is inherently different to companies, is that we often cannot know yet whether an adaptation activity has been truly successful, and there are different kinds of approaches emerging that can help us better defining that.

This does not mean that we should not pursue more rigorous monitoring and evaluation of climate adaptation but to also be honest about the timescales, interests, and priorities driving the choices that are being made.

In short, innovation is truly a key ingredient amongst successful  leaders and organisations and thinking about it as a set of core skills is useful as these can be cultivated.