Lead on Purpose

Promoting Leadership Principles in Product Management

Bridging the leadership gap in innovation

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Guest post by Jesse Nieminen

We’re living in an age where many industries are facing big changes. To thrive, or even survive, most companies need to find ways to innovate.

Yet, most companies fail to do that.

For example, according to McKinsey, more than 80% of executives think that their current business models are at risk and consider innovation to be very important for the future of their organization. However, only 6% of the said executives are actually satisfied with their innovation performance.

Bridging Gap

As innovation is simply about shaping the future of the organization, top management is the only party that can actually be held accountable for this poor performance.

There’s clearly a large leadership gap between the expectations and actual innovation performance in many organizations.

We’ve had the privilege of working with hundreds of organizations on making more innovation happen. In general, we’ve seen the successful innovators focus primarily on four areas with their work.

You can start bridging the gaps by focusing your work by taking the following actions:

Bridging Gap-steps

1. Create a powerful vision

Shaping the future starts with the vision, or mission. A good vision helps define and illustrate the future and inspires both customers and employees to join you on the journey.

A great vision is technology agnostic. While the rise of certain technologies and business models, such as blockchain and marketplaces, should certainly influence and fuel your vision, they shouldn’t be the vision.

For example, Google’s mission is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”, not to “embrace the cloud and AI to find the most relevant web pages and serve the best ads”.

Also, your vision doesn’t necessarily have to disrupt entire industries. In many cases, it can even be preferable to have a more incremental vision. For example, providing the most intimate and exquisite customer experience in the business can be a great vision too.

The point is simply to help guide your activities in a unified direction where you see yourself as having the best probabilities for succeeding.

2. Build an organization that can innovate

Once you have a vision to aim towards, the next step is to build an organization that can get you there.

All organizations have plenty of practices, processes and ways of working that are designed to work well in the specific circumstances of the organization, but that hinder its ability to change, adapt and innovate. The challenge is to find ways that allow you to build an organization that is able to simultaneously exploit your existing capabilities, as well as build new ones.

However, what works for one organization isn’t necessarily the best approach for another. Amazon and Apple are two of the largest companies in the world, both heralded for their ability to innovate, yet their philosophy towards innovation and organizational structures are fundamentally different.

In general, there’s a growing body of evidence that advocates for ambidextrous or agile organizations as a vehicle for being flexible and stable at the same time. However, instead of an overnight agile transformation, it’s probably best to start small, build some independent teams to pursue new opportunities, and to try to learn from these pilots.

The goal is to ultimately be able to move fast and dynamically address both problems and opportunities that you encounter on your way towards the vision you’ve set.

3. Lead and empower

Even though top management involvement is crucial for innovation performance, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you should be obsessing about every last detail in your innovations the same way Steve Jobs was.

In reality, the best use of most executives’ capabilities is to focus on guiding and empowering their teams as opposed to managing every part of the process.

In practice this means that the leader should constantly communicate and reiterate their vision for their teams, remove roadblocks that prevent them from succeeding, as well as simply set the bar high and hold people accountable.

4. Learn and adapt

Finally, the beauty of innovating, to create something new, is that it’s a continuous learning process. No matter whether you succeed or fail, you’ll inevitably learn something new.

So, whenever you as an organization learn something new, you should be prepared to adapt and seize the opportunity. It is through a continuous process of learning and improvement that you will gradually build your innovation capabilities.

Usually this simply means understanding the business better and finding ways of doing things that actually work, but sometimes you might uncover a tremendous opportunity to reshape the future of your industry, just like Kodak did when they came up with the first digital camera.

When that happens, make sure you have an open mind and are ready to make the most out of that opportunity. Don’t be the executive who’s stuck on just doing what has worked for them in the past.

Questions: What actions do you need to take to up your innovation game? Why is innovation important to your organization? Please leave a comment in the space below.


Jesse Nieminen is the Co-founder and Chairman at Viima, a fast-growing innovation management software company with customers including some of the Global Fortune 500.

The Product Management Perspective: Product managers face big changes constantly. New technology changes come at us constantly and make our work interesting, if not difficult. Understanding and executing on the actions above will help you change the innovation game for your products.

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