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Making This One Choice Will Help You Focus As An Innovation Leader

Being an innovation leader in a large company is difficult at the best of times. However, it gets even harder when the leader is not clear on what their job is. The other day I was having a conversation with an innovation leader from a large retail company that has also launched a bank as a challenger brand. In discussing her challenges within the large company and the choices she faced, we landed on a major decision that she had to make:

What exactly does she think her job is? Does she view her job as helping her teams launch successful new products in the market? Or does she view her job as leading the transformation of her company into an organization that can innovate sustainably?

Making this single choice – transformation versus innovation; will help leaders focus on what needs to be done for success.

Transformation = Innovation Ecosystems

It is true that transforming your organization will help innovation thrive in the long term. I recommend building an innovation ecosystem which is a repeatable process for taking creative ideas and transforming them into sustainably profitable business models. To build an innovation ecosystem requires that we change how our company develops innovation strategy, makes investment decisions, measures progress and incentivises intrapreneurs.

Transforming companies is challenging work, that is not for the faint-hearted. But it is also highly rewarding work. Creating the right environment for innovators can help a company prepare for the future while running its core business for current success. But if you are an innovation leader, the question becomes: Is that your job? And if you choose that as your job, then you need to be thinking about how you can do that work well. I have previously published an article about the eight things you can do to transform your company’s innovation culture.  

Innovation = Making Progress

The transformation choice is relatively different from the choice to focus on innovation. While transformation makes innovation easier, it is also possible to innovate in organizations that do not have an innovation ecosystem. This is difficult work that requires the innovation leader to be politically astute, find diplomats and champions to support their work, and help their teams to make progress.

Ryan Jacoby has just written a small and concise must-read book entitled Making Progress, in which he argues that the first and foremost job of an innovation leader is helping their teams to make progress. This means that they have to define what progress means within their organization, set a clear innovation agenda, build the right teams and then inspire, support and reward those teams for making progress. According to Jacoby, creating processes and managing transformation is not an innovation leader’s job.

The work of leading innovation can result in transformed organizations, but this is an incidental side-effect. What the innovation leader has to do to make progress, the political landmines they have to avoid and the clever ways they discover to protect their teams and acquire resources; all this can forge a new path that can transform the organization while the innovation leader makes progress and celebrates success. But this transformation is not their goal. It simply happens while they are focused on their work.

Make The Choice

Whatever you do as a leader do not get caught in between. Make a clear choice. There are risks involved in both approaches and you have to be aware of these. If you focus on innovation, be aware of the corporate antibodies within your organization and develop techniques to counteract their effects. In you focus on transformation, be aware that it will take a long time to show results and so you need leadership support in the long term.

Transformers and innovators can also work together to support each other’s work. For example, innovators can help a transformation teams with early wins that demonstrate the value of innovation and the new ways of working. Such stories then provide much needed momentum to the long term transformation project. On the other hand, the transformation team can serve as diplomats helping innovators make progress by removing obstacles and getting support from corporate leadership.

The choice is yours. Red Pill – Blue Pill. Transformation or Innovation.

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

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