Leadership, not process, is the keystone of innovation

To think differently, act differently. For most, easier said than done. I’ve stressed this over and over again. And will keep on stressing it because I know we’ll never get over it. Simply put, there are those that seek new thoughts before taking action. And, there are those that will only take action until those new thoughts are sketched out in a methodology. Usually, by someone else.

So, everyone seeks new thoughts about innovation thinking. It has gotten to the point where people will put a new “name” on old and known concepts to make it look new. The literature around strategy and innovation is vast, and if we’re seeking breakthroughs, one thing will always be clear: to be strategic is to be unconventional.

Again, that means not just thinking differently, but also acting differently.

Last week I wrote about how there is a lot of focus on innovation methodologies, but not so much on the leadership part. Let me put it clear: no amount of the latest methodologies will save you.

This is because methodologies spread easily. Once something becomes a best practice, everyone else jumps in.

Mindset precedes methodology

The sad thing is that when a company is considering hiring service providers that provide innovation capability their criteria is based on specialization on a specific methodology. Instead, they should be hiring providers who have the mindset of an innovator. Or even better, develop the mindset themselves.

Wishful thinking, I know.

Although I think methodologies like design thinking are great because it is about putting the customer at the center of what you do, a methodology doesn’t equal mindset. The d. school has this mindset, but most companies don’t. You can teach skills, but not attitude and character. That is why the pursuit of innovation is more about leadership than anything else. Leadership, not process, is the keystone of innovation.

The point is that no single strategy or methodology will tell you what to do. But leadership, will help you push through. Put simply: where there’s leadership, there’s innovation.

Scale leadership, not process

The “how” of innovation is what gets the most attention. But the real hard part, is just “getting started”. That is what leadership is about. No map? No problem. Let’s make one. It is no secret that the most innovative companies in the world don’t really have “a process” to talk about. What they do have, is a distinct culture.

Just like Jack Dorsey talks about technology disappearing, and so it is with methodologies. They shouldn’t matter. What people touch and feel is your intent. Anybody can sell a methodology, but not everyone can sell an emotion.

How do you scale leadership? First, you must understand that culture precedes process. A culture of learning isn’t built unless people are learners and are encouraged to constantly learn more. To create a culture for innovation, leaders must focus on outcomes, develop trust, challenge status-quo & be inspiring.

Activities like these are not on a manager’s typical to-do list. But, this comes back to one simple principle: do what others are unwilling to do. Because, for things to change, somebody somewhere has to start acting differently.

Bottom line: Act differently to think differently. Culture is built through action and conversation. We can’t think our way to a new behavior because we can’t trust our own thinking. Go, do.

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  • Stephan Teichmann

    Hi Jorge, great article. Most I like the part on “old wine in new bottles, this is how I feel, when I am reading a lot of other articles on Innovation. I agree, you need leadership and an innovation culture and they will probably lead to more innovative products than when you only rely on processes and methodologies.

    • Hi Stephan,

      Nice way to put it.

      Leadership is the ultimate equalizer. So much is made about process and methodologies because they are easier to digest. Leadership, on the other hand, takes guts.

      Thanks for the comment.


  • re:invention, inc.

    People (and businesses) “get started” all the time. They don’t finish well. They stumble with execution. Process clarifies decision rights, designs information flows, aligns motivators, and tracks milestones as well as changes to structure. Process ensures that success is achieved. A brilliant/breakthrough idea, strategy, product, or technology can put you on the competitive map, but only solid execution can keep
    you there. Good leadership and process-driven operational excellence go hand in hand.

    • You are talking about discipline. Not arguing against that. If anything that is why leadership is more essential in businesses that really aim to change the game.

      My argument is against simplistic ideas, the ones that don’t challenge anything. The ones that are just me-too’s and just aim to fill a known void. Those have a map, can look to the sides and see others doing the same. It is a plug and model scenario.

      Not much creativity going on there.

      Managers live there. Not saying it is easy either, but it is not a challenge and of no interest for the world. Those live and die and nobody knows about them because of their simplistic view.

      • re:invention, inc.

        Actually my point is that mindset is not enough. “Leadership” is not enough. Culture is not enough. You need action, great execution, and you need the right tools to get the job done. Leaders with technical competency, expertise, knowledge, skills and ability to direct systems and processes are more successful. They earn the trust and confidence of those that they lead. The best leaders are strong tactical practitioners, not merely visionary cheerleaders. Without some knowledge of process and the technical/functional skills that they direct, the Pyramid of Leadership falls apart and an organization begins to operate in damage control mode. Thoughts?

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