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Leadership and Management of Innovation (Eric James)


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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.

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Leadership and Management of Innovation (Eric James)

  1. 1. The Leadership and Management of Innovation Eric James, PhD Based on Chapter 9 in Managing Humanitarian Innovation: The Cutting Edge of Aid (Practical Action, 2018) For more information, please visit
  2. 2. 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 innovation die.
  3. 3. Barriers to innovation abound…
  4. 4. 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 innovation framework.
  5. 5. INSPIRE Innovation Framework Inside out: Start with you kNow the context Strategize Prepare: Put first things first Ideate and integrate Re-examine Execute Source: Eric James, Managing Humanitarian Innovation: The Cutting Edge of Aid, Chapter 9, Practical Action, January 2018.
  6. 6. Inside out: Start with you
  7. 7. Aristotle noted centuries ago: ‘We are what we repeatedly do. 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 prepare.
  8. 8. 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 working?’ • 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 small actions)? • 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 knowledge)?
  9. 9. kNow the context
  10. 10. 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 Observe Orient The OODA Loop
  11. 11. Strategize
  12. 12. 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.
  13. 13. 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.
  14. 14. Prepare: Put first things first
  15. 15. 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?’
  16. 16. Ideate & integrate
  17. 17. 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.
  18. 18. Re-examine
  19. 19. 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 encountering challenges. 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.
  20. 20. Execute
  21. 21. 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.
  22. 22. The preceding slides are based on Chapter 9 from the book Managing Humanitarian Innovation: The Cutting Edge of Aid, available in early 2018 through your favorite bookstore For more information, please visit