The Leader leading Innovation

By Eric van Niekerk, Research Lead, Innocentrix

A recent investigation into innovation in the South African context showed that, amongst South Africa’s top companies, “Leadership and Ambition” is one of the greatest local, innovation-aligned strengths.

According to Vodacom’s Executive Head for Innovation, Jannie van Zyl, having buy-in from company leaders is key to innovation success. A case study on innovation leadership at Vodacom showed innovation is addressed at a CEO level, and across South Africa more than 75% of organisations address innovation at CEO level or higher. For the innovation team at Vodacom, visible buy-in and support from an innovative CEO and CTO gave them a “50% head start right from the outset”.

Garnering support from organisational leadership is crucial for the success of an innovation drive but the innovation department itself also needs a strong leader – someone who takes responsibility and who is willing to champion innovation throughout the organisation. Being an innovation leader is no easy task, and these leaders often make some crucial mistakes, but there are also ways to succeed in this position. These are some leadership traits we have identified, which we believe makes a difference:

1) Innovation leaders inspire others

Innovation is a complex concept. Due to the initial strangeness of a new innovation drive, it is often difficult to get organisational members (from employees to top management) to readily contribute. Innovation will often be met with scepticism and criticism, especially in the beginning. It is thus important for innovation leaders to have the ability to inspire others. Innovation leaders need to be passionate and inspired by innovation themselves, and then transfer this inspiration to others.

2) Innovation leaders lead by example

Innovation leaders are the ones who personally contribute to innovation drives within an organisation. These are the people who get involved, be it at external conferences or in the workplace. By themselves being active in the innovation space, these leaders show others that innovation is worthy of their time, and is something to get involved in. It is about visibly demonstrating the vision for innovation.

3) Innovation leaders plan ahead

The unfortunate fact is that innovation takes time. Innovation success stories we hear very often omits all the setbacks and failures experienced along the road to realisation. It means that companies need to embrace risk and failure, and, as is the nature of innovation, there will be ideas that just do not work. Not allowing room for the appropriate growth and learning from the innovation process could stifle efforts. For this reason, innovation leaders must plan, budget and measure success with failure in mind, in order to reap the benefits in the future.

4) Innovation leaders build a culture of trust

Innovation, especially within the organisational capacity, revolves around the creating and sharing of ideas. If there is no trust between innovation leaders and those who submit ideas, then ideas will not be forthcoming. Innovation leaders must build a base of trust by treating people and ideas with respect, and ensuring that all parties benefit from the innovation process. This is key to the survival and ultimate quality of innovation within an organisation.

5) Innovation leaders identify opportunity and empower others

Innovation capitalises on opportunity. If an innovation leader cannot quickly identify opportunity, and develop a team or strategy to peruse this opportunity, someone else will. Opportunity here does not only involves capitalising on business potential, but also personal potential. Being able to identify innovative individuals and ideas, and having the capacity to uplift these, is an important trait for innovation leaders.

6) Innovation leaders harness the power of collaboration

Collaboration, the ability to work with others outside of your direct frame of reference, is important for achieving better results. Being able to use all the human resources at your disposal will greatly impact on the quality of output. Add to this the knowledge and reach of your customers, peers, other departments within the organisation, experts in industry, SMME’s, the corporate ecosystem and global networking insights, and your chances to find cutting-edge solutions or create new markets increase exponentially. New ideas are always out there, and a good innovation leader knows where to find them.

Ultimately, Innovation is a people-centred process, and the success of an innovation strategy relies heavily on those individuals who lead innovation within an organisation. Having a strong innovation leader that supports inspired innovation champions throughout the organisation, is a good start towards excelling as an innovative organisation.