The leadership and management that supports and enables innovation can be a significant challenge. Being a truly effective leader involves a series of steps that are captured here in the INSPIRE framework. This involves working from the "inside out" (i.e., innovative leaders know that excellence starts with themselves), knowing the context, being able to effectively strategize, preparation, generating and integrating good ideas, re-examining the approach and executing plans effectively.
Leadership and Management of Innovation (Eric James)
The Leadership and
Eric James, PhD
Based on Chapter 9 in Managing Humanitarian Innovation:
The Cutting Edge of Aid
(Practical Action, 2018)
For more information, please visit www.ericbooks.com
Innovation can be defined as the creation of a new alternative
(product/service, position, process or paradigm) that has a positive
social impact. It typically involves transformational
change that has a lasting influence.
Definitions of leadership and management vary but most
people know it when they see it. So the ideas are easy,
even if the terms are hard to define. As Peter Drucker
said, “Management is doing things right, leadership is
doing the right thing.”
The challenge is that in practice (in its implementation
and execution), innovation is too often blocked and fails
to become a reality. It is this that makes the spark of
To handle these barriers, it takes the right type of leadership and
management. Innovation, in other words, doesn’t happen “by
accident,” it happens by deliberate action.
An innovative leader is able to navigate through and around the
resistance often encountered, finding new and better ways to
spark innovation and make it sustainable.
Luckily, many of the tools and techniques that
help propel people, teams and organisations
can be optimised for innovation. Being a truly
effective leader, however, involves a series of
steps that are captured here in the INSPIRE
INSPIRE Innovation Framework
Inside out: Start with you
kNow the context
Prepare: Put first things first
Ideate and integrate
Source: Eric James, Managing Humanitarian Innovation: The Cutting Edge of Aid,
Chapter 9, Practical Action, January 2018.
Aristotle noted centuries
ago: ‘We are what we
Excellence, then, is not
an act, but a habit.’
Effective leadership and management is not just a set of practical
tools and tips. It is about having the right frame of mind and this
starts by working from the inside out.
Follow the famous dictum: ‘Know thyself’. Only after mastering
oneself is it possible to lead other people. Knowing and mastering
yourself becomes the first critical step in leadership.
Effective leadership has to be built on a foundation of good habits;
otherwise, ineffective practices will surface, hypocrisy becomes
evident, and little can be achieved because all time is spent trying
to build consensus and influence others. Examples of self-mastery
include taking care of personal mental and physical wellbeing,
balancing work/life responsibilities, and taking time to plan and
Habits of Innovative Leaders
• They are honest with themselves: They ask key questions such as: ‘Do I really know as
much as I should to be innovative?’ and ‘Am I really open to new ideas or ways of
• Show gratitude: Are you able to hear – and say thank you for – constructive criticism?
• Know your thinking and learning style: Do you know how you learn best: whether you
are a visual, aural, reading/writing, or kinaesthetic learner?
• Set regular goals: Do you plan and prepare daily, weekly, and monthly? Do you
regularly set specific and realistic personal and professional goals (e.g., being on time,
eating properly, or exercising, being loyal to the absent, effectively linking big ideas with
• Reach for occasional stretch goals: How often do you set and achieve goals that take
you out of your comfort zone and broaden your horizons (e.g., learning a new skill,
travel, reaching an educational milestone or producing/contributing to new
Your organization: An organization grows and changes over time,
adapting to the situation: just like a seed turns into a tree. An
innovative leader is able to gauge their organization’s ripeness for
change and use their influence to promote innovation by
connecting with channels and champions who may be supportive.
An innovative leader is able to understand the organization they work for, as
well as the context in which they operate, and make the most of both for
positive change. Knowing the context involves both understanding the
organization you work for and having good awareness of the environment in
which your work takes place.
Your environment: There are many useful ways to
enhance situational awareness. One simple tool is the
observe, orient, decide, and act (OODA) loop first created
by John Boyd. This can help in understanding not just
surroundings but new and complex situations where
certain outcomes are expected.DecideAct
A strategy is the plan for achieving an aim or set of objectives and, hence, to
strategize is the act of creating a strategy. Strategy may seem like a paradoxical effort:
innovation may appear to be fast paced, non-linear, short-term, and based at least in
part on improvisation whereas strategy involves long-term planning.
As noted by Jim Collins (2001), examples of good management come from various
sectors, regardless of what they do with their profit. The same is true with innovation.
These organizations, and many like them, share a lot in common.
Regardless of the sector, innovative leadership has several common characteristics. These are:
• Focus on people: When working on difficult problems, particularly when technological fixes are
involved, affected people can be forgotten in the rush to provide a solution.
• Dealing with ambiguity: Working on innovation involves working with unknowns, and managing
innovation can add further uncertainty. Having an openness to change and ways to break large
problems into manageable bits are keys to dealing with ambiguity.
• Speed: With time at a premium, a mindset – along with appropriate systems and tools – that
produces results is a must. Approaches including reduced administration and streamlining
bureaucratic rules enable innovation.
• Flexibility: While demanding compliance with standards can be an asset in stable situations, it can be
detrimental in situations of rapid change. Having an approach that is designed to be adaptable and
malleable is an important enabling factor.
• Learning: There is a common perception that learning is time-consuming, but the right methodologies
can speed this process. When done properly, new and improved products and services can be trialled
and deployed in the field through using the right learning systems. This may involve failing fast and
pivoting to more effective ways of doing things than traditional approaches.
Preparation involves a couple of useful steps
1. Start with the end in mind. Stephen Covey (2004), noted that every
human creation is actually created twice: a mental creation precedes
every action and physical creation. Just as having a clear blueprint helps
build a well-constructed house, an organization needs to have a clear
plan for how it will achieve its goals. This is what Gugelev and Stern
(2015) describe as the ‘endgame
2. Follow the Scout’s motto: ‘Be Prepared’
3. Prioritise by planning to succeed. By having a clear end in mind,
preparing to reach that goal and prioritising the right things will make
success more likely. As Covey (2004: 154) asked, ‘What one thing could
you do in your personal and professional life that, if you did on a regular
basis, would make a tremendous positive difference in your life?’
Integration involves bringing together elements of an idea, plan, team,
organization, and ecosystem (e.g., the community and stakeholders) to
make an innovation successful. It is the opposite of a siloed approach
where ‘labs’ are placed outside of the main activities and areas.
This means being both driven and creative while building consensus.
Creativity, using imagination and generating original ideas, can be
learned and cultivated.
Dyer, Christensen and Gregersen (HBR, 2009) recognize key behaviours that optimize the creative
impulse in people:
Associating: drawing connections between questions, problems, or ideas from unrelated fields.
Questioning: posing queries that challenge common wisdom.
Observing: scrutinising the behaviour of customers, suppliers, and competitors to identify new ways
of doing things.
Networking: meeting people with different ideas and perspectives.
Experimenting: constructing interactive experiences and provoking unorthodox responses to see
what insights emerge.
Regardless how well a plan is made, it is always possible for obstacles (whether
minor hurdles or major roadblocks) to arise in the effort to innovative.
Questioning the direction of an innovative project and the assumptions that
underpin the effort can be an important exercise. The concept applies equally to
those who know a problem, subject, or context very well. The point is to take a
beginner’s approach so that discovery and learning can be maximized. Here are
two interesting ways to think about it:
1) Part of the ‘freak’
approach developed by Levitt
and Dabner (in their book
Freakonomics, 2014) includes
remaining child-like when
2) The Zen Buddhist concept
of shoshin, meaning
beginner’s mind, conveys this
idea. Having this mindset
means being eager, open, and
having a lack of bias.
Executing is all about bringing an innovation to life. It’s when management comes
into its own. There is a lot to be said about managing an innovative effort, so just a
few interesting ideas are shared here:
Have a bias toward action: To make an innovation scale and be sustainable,
focusing on producing results and learning from failure quickly is important.
Some fall into a trap of “analysis paralysis,” spending too much time thinking
about a problem, instead of actually solving it.
Accept imperfection: There is no such thing as perfect. As Voltaire is believed to
have said, do not “let perfect be the enemy of good.” Often, an 80% solution will
be good enough (particularly where learning and further development are
needed) so setting limits and making small changes can beneficial.
Strive for continual improvement: The Japanese concept of kaizen is a
technique used to ensure quality in the workplace. This practice humanizes the
workplace by encouraging participation and teaches people how to perform
experiments to eliminate waste and needlessly difficult tasks.
The preceding slides are based
on Chapter 9 from the book
Innovation: The Cutting Edge of
Aid, available in early 2018
through your favorite bookstore
For more information, please visit