How to lead innovation teams
So far, we have discussed the innovation skills of team members. In addition, leadership is one of the most important factors in the outcomes of innovation teams. While leadership may not be enough to overcome individual team-members’ native talents, or the force of outside context, it can make the most of both. As with innovation teams in general, the research on innovation team leaders tends toward small studies. However, there is statistical evidence that certain leadership approaches are correlated with innovation team outcomes.
The first body of research surrounds what is called “Transformational Leadership.” This approach (put forth by Bass, 1985) describes leaders who encourage team members to perform above and beyond expectations by:
- Acting as a positive role model
- Communicating an attractive vision for the future
- Encouraging independent and creative thinking; and
- Being caring and nurturing
Subsequently, the concept of Ambidextrous Leadership has been proposed and blossomed into a movement in innovation circles. Ambidextrous Leadership describes a leader’s ability to use both “Opening behaviors” and “Closing behaviors” and flexibly switch between the two. Opening leadership behaviors include:
- Experimenting with different ideas
- Allowing different ways to accomplish a task
- Motivating to take risks
- Giving possibilities for individual thinking and action
- Allowing errors
- Encouraging learning from errors
Whereas Closing Leadership behaviors include:
- Monitoring/controlling goal attainment
- Establishing routines
- Taking corrective action
- Controlling adherence to rules
- Sanctioning errors
- Sticking to plans
An Australian study found that Opening leadership behaviors positively and significantly predicted team innovation, especially when Closing leadership behaviors were also strong (Zacher et al.). Team innovation was highest when both Opening and Closing leadership behaviors were strong, as opposed to when only one was strong, or both were weak. Opening and Closing leadership behaviors predicted team innovation more than a Transformational Leadership style.
While the results of this study are intriguing, one wonders whether the researchers distinguished between the innovation phases in their survey. Certainly, Opening leadership behaviors are more important during the conceptual phase of innovation; and Closing leadership behaviors are more crucial during the Implementation phase. Once you have your rocket ship ready to launch and are counting down to blast-off, you can’t be experimenting with core designs and materials. By then, all systems must work as designed and be bullet-proof. So when applying this theory to your teams, we would introduce more nuance in applying the behaviors to the innovation phases.
Also we believe there is an important distinction between “top-down, ‘command and control’” leadership and “Closing leadership behaviors.” For innovation teams to succeed long-term, leaders must empower them, vs. controlling and punishing them. ‘Command and control’ leadership imposes a top-down decision on teams, whereas coaching models and supports the teams’ own good decision-making skills and habits. Great innovation leaders don’t catch their teams a fish, but rather, they teach them to fish.
On the topic of leadership styles, we are privileged to speak with a great innovation leader: Evren Eryurek, Director of Product Management at Google Cloud, and former SVP & CTO of GE Healthcare. Evren knows from experience how leading innovation teams differs from leading ordinary teams. He says, “The top leader has to be the right person for any innovation to work. A ‘command and control’ style doesn’t work, in my opinion. Instead you need to Inspire, Coach, and Empower, in that order. And you have to be present globally for teams, encourage them to take risks and walk the talk. If you cut their budget in the first financial challenge, then you demoralize innovation teams.”
Let’s unpack Evren’s sage advice:
Innovators, more than regular employees, tend to be mission- and vision-driven. And an inspiring mission ignites teams’ ambition to reach for 10x better goals, and the grit and persistence to reach them. To inspire an innovation team, ask them to explain their Massive Transformation Purpose (or MTP) in ten words or less. Then mirror that mission back to them when they are at a crossroads about a feature or business model. Which decision aligns with their MTP? Push them to be not 5 percent better, but 10x better than the competition or any substitute – not only in their product, but also in their business model, marketing, and culture.
A coach is more of a peer or mentor than a top-down manager. As a coach, it is better to ask the innovation team questions than to tell them what to do. Ask what experiments they have conducted and what they have learned from them. Ask them what product-market fit will look like, and what metrics they are using to detect if they are approaching this Holy Grail state. Do they need 10 enterprise customers, or 1 million freemium subscribers to demonstrate product-market fit? How many daily active users, and what percentage of customers need to renew or upgrade? Ask the kinds of questions that lead them to think through their assumptions. Encourage them to pay attention to real data, not donning “happy ears,” only hearing what they want to hear.
We believe that innovation teams do not perform well under tight, top-down management and demands for frequent, conventional reporting. This is not because they are such unbridled free spirits. It is because innovation teams often operate in greater ambiguity, at accelerated speeds, and on different metrics than the main business.
If you ask an innovation team for a 10-year inflation-adjusted revenue projection of their new product when it is only a minimum viable product (MVP), you are wasting your time and theirs. Even if they comply, there is about a two percent chance the projections will be accurate. But you just took the team away from the more important work of testing their MVP with potential customers. Instead of “managing.” which conveys a sense of control over the teams, you are better off empowering innovation teams to make customer-centric decisions.