Leading With Innovation

Apr 21, 2014 1 Min Read
mind, ideas, innovation
Great Leadership Starts with Innovation

A day in the life of an employee involves following a sequence of tasks that addresses problems and leads to getting the job done.

Some problems are chalked up to the nature of the job, and others come in from left field. The reality of reactive problem solving is the norm for most of us, but the most successful companies always focus on doing it better, with the spirit of continuous improvement.

Innovation is not just a buzzword or management concept reserved for tech companies or sophisticated businesses. All individuals and companies can make a conscious choice to “be innovative”.

One of the ways to do this is by creating a culture where innovation thrives; where innovation creates operational efficiency, which shapes a culture of excellence, and drives market penetration.

When this organisational strength is honed, it can become a source of competitive advantage. The following is an insight into innovation management – how you can create a collaborative buzz in your workplace, and a continuously improving value proposition to your customers.


Innovation management is a systematic tool to guide a company successfully into the future, by constantly developing their value to the market, and by setting an internal climate whereby ideas are cultivated and readily deployed to market.

Successful innovation management does not depend on the leader as the source of innovation, but rather it has everything to do with how the leader creates a culture where innovation and creativity thrive in every area.

Soon there is a realisation that problem solving will always be a necessity, but continuous improvement is where resources are better spent. It’s where an entire company embodies the spirit of innovation.


1. Start with the end in mind

From the onset, by focusing on outcomes and results, every conversation and activity is guided through a path to the best available solution. Leaders can start the process to paint a picture of the future and then hold their teams accountable for the “how” to get there. Clearly, one of the ways that innovation is cultivated is by having leaders who make sure everyone is involved, and made conscious of the desired outcome and timeframes.

2. Trust in the process

By having all team members aligned for the end result, there is nothing else to do except to give themselves to the process and to have complete confidence in one another.

In this approach, managers also trust in the process, and make way for “the hits and misses”. What this means is project team members are empowered to take calculated risks, to try “new things”. There is no stigma even if an initiative falls into a heap. Even with a bad result, there is now information to feed into future improvement. Along the timeline, success is inevitable.

3. Challenge others

In this workplace forum of innovation, all ideas and justifications must be open to scrutiny – because there is no ego or personal attachment to an idea, everything is on the table to deconstruct, remove or modify. A culture of challenging others allows people to remain objective to the task by keeping the big picture in mind – “how can we do this better?” By putting hierarchy away for a moment, people in companies can be truly valued for their contribution, and not for their authority.

4. The spirit of innovation

For innovation to exist there needs to be an inspiration, a desire to create something great – either for yourself, the people around you, or for the improvement of the community. The energy poured into a task becomes a labour of purpose, instead of leading a paycheck. Leaders must create an innovative culture, and encourage this spark with all employees.

When people feel inspired by a leader they are more inclined to give more effort and go the extra mile on a project. That extra effort and commitment are often what produces innovation.


Tapped Potential

Given that innovation is about creation or recreation, it’s no surprise there is value in approaching innovation with the mindset of an artist.

Personally, years after leaving high school band practice, art and graphic design classes, my brain has somewhat switched off its neurological pathways for creativity.

It’s probably worth mentioning, my logical human resources vocation has probably compounded this effect. This is why when it comes to innovation, psychologists emphasise “right-brain” engagement.

This is the hemisphere of our brain that is responsible not just for creativity, but also for imagination (what if), intuition (gut feel) and exploration (new experience). In a world where we are increasingly filled with data and technology, there is real value in an artistic counterbalance.

If business people can embrace thinking like an artist, it’s possible that their body of work would be a true extension of themselves, would be done out of the free will, not confined by rules or boundaries, and would be a labour of love – not motivated by the bottom line.

Sahar Hashimi, ex-lawyer and pioneer of the coffee café business concept in London, believes that the artistic right-brain is the key to innovation. She goes even further to suggest we should switch off our “left-brain”, to mute our own rational thoughts.

Sahar might have a point because it’s hard enough dealing with the imposing logic of others telling you “it’s never been done before”, or “the experts wouldn’t agree with what you’re doing”.

If Sahar didn’t trust in her artistic brain, perhaps she wouldn’t have made such innovation and impact on the coffee world.


When it comes to problem solving, your employees are truly your most valued source of solutions. Not only are they on the ground when things blow up, they often see problems crop up often enough that they know the tell-tale signs before problems actually occur.

In the past, how many times have you said to yourself “if I was the boss, this is the way I would do it”? By empowering employees and making them feel like real owners of your company, you’ll be able to tap into that important source, to create innovative solutions in the areas you need it most. You could start by giving employees a forum to collectively share their thoughts on “how things can be better”. Other questions worth asking include:

• What’s one thing we can immediately do to improve our business?

• How can we improve customer service?

• What works really well, and how can we take it to another level?

• What should we do away with?

In regards to getting to an immediate solution, the answers to these questions should hit the nail on the head – by creating an immediate solution, or at the very least highlight where resources should be immediately directed. By giving employees a platform and a voice, you are giving them a sense of ownership of not only their immediate space but also of their results – the good and the bad.

You are encouraging independent thinking, the introduction of new ideas, and a spirit of “if it’s to be then it’s up to me.” All employees become leaders in their own innovation.


The people leading the innovation should first reduce the uncertainty surrounding project assumptions before committing limited resources to the idea. The greater the uncertainty around these assumptions, the greater the risk associated with any new opportunity.

Adequate time needs to be spent to test whether a business model supports the idea, whether a new technology will truly be a catalyst to the process, whether customers would actually respond favourably to the new service, or which service would work best.

Clearly, innovation can never be risk-free, but the process of validating these project assumptions should help you from being completely blindsided by the pitfalls and opportunities.



Apple’s Ping – Apple’s attempt at a social network for music lovers, didn’t quite hit the notes Steve Jobs was hoping for. Built into Apple iTunes, Steve thought Facebook, iTunes and Twitter would create a brilliant synergy. Putting it simply Ping failed because it didn’t integrate well with Facebook, and users perceived it as a jumbled social network.

Groupon in China – even before entering foreign shores they proclaimed to be Chinas largest shopping site, which couldn’t be further from the truth – they simply didn’t take the time to understand the market. In addition to this, Groupon’s sizeable management team consisted of only two Chinese – one local and one from Hong Kong. Groupon operated in a western way, was not aligned with local values, which led to a very high turnover of staff.

Moving quickly from ideation to implementation should not be likened to a skydive freefall. Firstly the speed in which this happens is usually a gauge of how much time the idea has had to time “settle”, especially after the initial excitement and decision to make it happen. Before committing headfirst into an idea, some assumptions need to be validated repeatedly throughout the process:

• Does our business model support the innovation?

• Is the customer benefit clear?

• Is there a market?

• Do we have the right culture and people aligned to the task?

• Is technology up to the task?

• Is the risk so little that the money spent is insignificant?


For leaders that are taking the first steps into innovative action, you’ll be pleased to know there are many tried and tested innovative tools to improve company culture and your value proposition to the market.

However, in recent times, I’ve come to know of emerging innovations that are shaping big companies and small companies alike, in developed and third world countries. As the world is divided by affordability, proximity and availability to resources, there are innovators that are focused on reducing the divide – to make the best resources available to all. “Frugal innovation” and “disruptive innovation” might be the most compelling innovations to shape our future.

>> Frugal Innovation

Frugal innovation put simply is about doing more with less. It’s about using fewer resources to create more value. There is a wave of innovators and inventors in developing nations that are creating low-cost strategies to tap into or circumvent “conventional inputs” and resource limitations to innovate. In this process, they are able to develop and deliver products and services to low-income users with historically no purchasing power.

Born out of necessity, India is at the forefront of frugal innovation. The Tata Nano, the pride of India’s automotive industry, is a classic example of frugal innovation. Engineers enthusiastically embraced the task of national service. With a price tag of approximately RM5,500 the Nano is the cheapest car in the world. At a whopping two-cylinder, engine capacity of 600cc, and with no air conditioning – the Nano is attainable for every person seeking affordable transportation.

The beauty of frugal innovation is realised when these strategies are adopted by low-end markets and slowly elevated to higher purchasing power markets – soon all market segments and customers benefit. A sustainable strategy becomes a game-changer in the market, and ripple effects is experienced industry-wide.

What frugal innovation demonstrates is a reason for long-standing industries to reconsider their reliance on heavy research and development, to appreciate resource constraints as a motivation for innovation – to create a new market segment, and to increase industry-wide profitability.

>> Disruptive Innovation

Disruptive innovation, on the other hand, takes frugal innovation to another level. This form of innovation helps to create new value in the market. Eventually, the innovation goes on to disrupt an entire existing market by displacing an earlier product or service.

It was only a few years ago that standalone car GPS’ ware the best device to navigate your car journey. Today, everyone and I know either uses Google Maps or Waze to get from point A to point B – all for the cost of zero ringgit. Navigation apps in smartphones is a classic example of disruptive innovation, as there is a clear displacement of those clunky dashboard GPS devices.

Can we transpose disruptive innovation strategies to other industries? Is it applicable to our country? If developing countries are doing it, there is nothing stopping us from enjoying the same benefits. It’s worth considering how disruptive innovation can be applied to your company and encouraged in your people.


Leading with innovation requires new mindsets and new habits to be formed. According to Soren Kaplan, author of Leapfrogging: Harness the Power of Surprise for Business Breakthroughs, disruptive innovation capability is mandatory for protecting existing markets (defence), and to developing current and new markets (offence).

Soren proposes that leaders of today are only equipped to deal with predictability – they are therefore ill-equipped to deal with disruption, which can knock a company off its axis and forces it to redefine its strategy under duress.

The key to better-equipped employees, leaders, and companies is to embrace uncertainty and to actually practise disruption innovation. Individuals in companies that practise disruption take more opportunities to evolve their culture, and to create a significant impact in creating a better value proposition for their customers.

Lead With innovation


1. Decide to become an disruptive innovator, and redefine your industry

2. Push personal boundaries

3. Challenge your own assumptions, and the assumptions of others

4. Step into the unknown – get comfortable in uncomfortable situations

5. Failure should be perceived as a stepping stone to greater insights into making it better

6. Revisit familiar areas of your business and explore new areas frequently

7. Attempt to uncover people’s underlying motivations – Their real drivers

8. Study industry disruptors and transpose their strategies to the young

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Shahran is a regional strategic manager with the Learning and Acceleration division at Leaderonomics. and formerly the Talent Acceleration Manager at Leaderonomics.

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