If you are trying to build the innovation capacity of your organization, you will want to identify early the people with an aptitude for leading innovation. Even before they become senior leaders these people will stimulate and encourage those around them. On the flip side, you will want to identify those who may be high-value employees but who shouldn’t be the ones that people go to with their wild and crazy ideas. These people can curtail innovation without even realizing it.
What do effective leaders of innovation do differently than other good leaders? What should you look for in someone who will drive innovation in your organization? In their new book, Collective Genius, Linda Hill and her co-authors describe the balancing act that good innovation leaders perform: between thinking and acting, being generous and demanding and being persistent and humble* (my paraphrasing). This is consistent with what we’ve observed over many years of running innovation leadership programs for high potentials.
When you are assessing innovation leadership potential, the standard talent selection criteria of ability, engagement and aspiration don’t provide the full picture. Here are the additional questions we use.
Thinking / Acting
Innovation comes from big picture thinking to find interesting problems and from diving in to find details or nuances that others have overlooked. It takes curiosity, and it takes a willingness to wrestle with complexity – usually in conversation/collaboration with others.
Can your candidate identify a problem she liked working on? Can she explain it at different levels: Why was it worth solving? What differentiated the solution? How did it work?
The thinking takes time but it has to be balanced with demonstrable progress. Leading innovation requires knowing when you know enough to try something, and then trying it.
Can your candidate describe a time when she reached a solution through experimentation? How did she set up the experiment? How did she get “permission” to experiment or work through or around organizational hurdles. What did she learn (especially anything unexpected)? How did that inform the next attempt?
Generous / Demanding
Leading innovation means valuing the contributions of others even when it appears possible to go it alone.
Does the person readily share credit? When he describes an accomplishment, does he mention the others involved? Does he describe their contribution only in terms of how it assisted him? Can he describe a time when he shared an idea or spent time getting a colleague up to speed on something because he thought it would benefit them?
But leading innovation also means being able to identify the people who can and want to contribute and not wasting time trying to collaborate with people whose interests clearly are not aligned.
Can your candidate describe how they handled a situation in which a team member was not pulling their weight or a collaborator did not deliver as promised? Can she describe an experience in which she had to make a difficult decision about continuing to work with someone?
Persistent / Humble
Innovation demands a thick skin and strong conviction to overcome organizational inertia, fear of failure, and other obstacles that new ideas face.
Can the person describe a time when they overcame resistance to a new idea?
But pursuing a new idea also means being willing to admit ignorance and ask for help.
How does your candidate go about getting help? Who does he reach out to? Subordinates? Peers? Seniors? Can he describe a time when he’s had to convince someone to lend their expertise?
This last trait, humility, consistently distinguishes effective leaders of innovation. Innovation depends on collaboration and collaboration depends on people helping each other. So, if you had to limit your assessment of innovation leadership to a single question, consider asking “How do you make people want to help you?”
*Hill, Linda A.; Brandeau, Greg; Truelove, Emily; Lineback, Kent (2014-05-13). Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation (Kindle Locations 4065-4069). Harvard Business Review Press. Kindle Edition.