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Why Innovation Requires a Different Kind of Leadership

A version of this article appeared in the June 2014 issue of Harvard Business Review.

The rhetoric of innovation is often about fun and creativity, but the reality is that innovation is hard work and can be a very taxing, uncomfortable process, both emotionally and intellectually. In fact, innovative problem solving may feel unnatural and even dangerous in many organizations if their leaders are not skilled.

Innovation usually emerges when diverse people collaborate to generate a wide-ranging portfolio of ideas, which they then refine and even evolve into new ideas through give-and-take and often-heated debates. Thus collaboration should involve passionate disagreement. Yet the friction of clashing ideas may be hard to bear. It can create tension and stress—particularly in groups of talented, energetic individuals who may feel as if there are “too many cooks in the kitchen.” Often organizations try to discourage or minimize differences, but that only stifles the free flow of ideas and rich discussion that innovation needs. Leaders must manage this tension to create an environment supportive enough that people are willing to share their genius, but confrontational enough to improve ideas and spark new thinking.

Innovation also requires trial and error. Innovative groups act rather than plan their way forward, and solutions emerge that are usually different from anything anyone anticipated. Most organizations and the people in them prefer to move systematically toward a desired outcome. They set a goal, make a plan, assign responsibilities, work through the steps, and track progress until the goal is achieved. Isn’t that approach just good management? Not when it comes to innovation. Leaders of innovation create environments that strike the right balance between the need for improvisation and the realities of performance.

Finally, creating something novel and useful involves moving beyond either-or thinking to both-and thinking. But this also can be challenging. All too often, leaders and their groups solve problems through domination or compromise, resulting in less-than-inventive solutions. Innovation requires integrating ideas—combining option A and option B, even if they once seemed mutually exclusive—to create a new and better option. It also requires that leaders be patient enough to let great ideas from people in all parts of the organization develop. At the same time, they must ensure that a sense of urgency and clear parameters allow integrative decision making to actually occur.

Fostering a Willingness to Innovate

To build willingness, leaders must create communities that share a sense of purpose, values, and rules of engagement.


The mutual trust and respect needed to create a community could come only from interaction and dialogue to grow familiar with one another and with the innovation process, from collaborating to experimenting to integrating ideas.

Bringing people together, many of whom had rarely interacted before, to work in new situations that would force them out of old behaviors and catalyze new patterns of interaction.

Purpose is not what a group does but who is in it or why it exists. It’s about a collective identity. Purpose makes people willing to take the risks and do the hard work inherent in innovation.

Shared values

To form a community, members have to agree on what’s important. By shaping the group’s priorities and choices, values influence individual and collective thought and action. They vary from community to community, but we found four that truly innovative organizations all embrace: bold ambition, responsibility to the community, collaboration, and learning.

Rules of engagement

Together with purpose and values, rules of engagement keep members focused on what’s imperative, discourage unproductive behaviors, and encourage activities that foster innovation.

The tensions inherent in collaboration may not only slow down progress but even threaten to tear a creative community apart. Rules of engagement can help control those destructive forces—for example, by keeping conflict focused on ideas rather than personalities.

Generally, the rules of engagement fall into two categories. The first is how people interact, and those rules call for mutual trust, mutual respect, and mutual influence. The second category is how people think, and those rules call for everyone to question everything, be data-driven, and see the whole picture.

Can you think of more ways to foster innovation??

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