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Do Your Leaders Have The Right Convictions About Innovation?

Without leadership support, corporate innovation projects are dead on arrival. Leadership support is so important that this is the first thing I ask for when I am working with innovation teams. I have worked with several teams that have tried to avoid getting leadership support for their projects. However, they soon discover that they cannot avoid leaders forever. There is always the crunch point where teams need more resources and approvals to  take their ideas to scale. This is usually the moment they realise that they should have engaged their leaders much sooner.

It is also the case that more and more leaders are now keen to support innovation. This is good news, if those leaders have the right convictions about how innovation works. While we are always keen to celebrate when leaders get actively involved in innovation, I have learned that not all leadership support is created equal. Sometimes you have leaders that are keen to support innovation but they have the wrong convictions about how innovation works. This kind of support can actually be harmful to innovation projects.

We are not just looking to get broad leadership support. We are looking to get a specific kind of support that will help innovation teams thrive. To be successful in the long term, innovation needs leaders who get it. Below are ten convictions that leaders should have about innovation. Teams can use this checklist to see if they are getting the right kind of support from their leadership team. 

  1. Exploiting Versus Exploring  Exploiting current success and exploring new opportunities are different arenas of business that require different styles of leadership and management. In one case, you are delivering a known value proposition and executing on a known business model. In the other case, you are searching for the right value proposition and a profitable business model.  
  2. Can’t Pick Winning Ideas – Given the uncertain nature of exploration, leaders cannot pick the winning ideas on day one. Instead, it is the role of leaders to create the right environment for the winning ideas to emerge.
  3. Don’t Make Big Bets – Since leaders cannot pick the winning idea on day one, the best investment strategy is to make small bets on multiple ideas. The goal is to increase that investment over time, but only for those teams with ideas that are showing traction. 
  4. Failure Is Part Of The Process – Making small bets is an acknowledgement that not all ideas will succeed. Increasing investment for teams that show traction inevitably means that we have to accept the failure for the other teams. The goal is to learn lessons from every failed innovation project.  
  5. Make Decisions Based On Evidence – In order to increase investment in the right teams, leaders have to make investment decisions based on evidence of progress. There should be no pet projects that leadership pushes through regardless of evidence. There should also be no zombie projects that just keep going even though the teams are not making progress. 
  6. Beyond Technology – Having a breakthrough technology is not the same thing as having a breakthrough value proposition. Leaders should encourage their teams to go beyond technology and explore value propositions that resonate with customers and scalable business models. 
  7. Don’t Let 1000 Flowers Bloom – Even as leaders make small bets, they should not invest in every idea that comes up.  Instead leaders should provide clear strategic guidance of where they want teams to play in terms of innovation.
  8. Protected Resources – Leaders should provide teams with protected resources to innovate. Once an investment is made, teams should not be looking over the shoulders in fear that the resources can be taken away.  
  9. Time Beyond Money – Beyond financial resources, leaders need to carve out and protect people’s time for innovation. Leaders should not keep pulling people away from innovation projects to solve problems in the core business.
  10. Empower Teams – After setting the context, leaders need to step away and allow innovation teams to do the work. What needs to be clear are the criteria that will be used to make decisions at a later stage. 

It is not enough that leaders have good intentions. They also need to have the right convictions about innovation. The wrong type of leadership support usually comes from leaders who believe in myths about innovation. Even with the best intentions, these leaders can end up getting in their own way. As such, our leaders’ convictions about innovation matter.  We are not just looking for their support with innovation, we are looking for a specific kind of support.


This article was first published on Forbes where Tendayi Viki is a regular contributor. Learn more at

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