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Characteristics and Actions of an Innovation Leader

No matter where they're found in an organization, innovators are a vital part of a company's structure. They keep the organization focused on the future. Innovation leaders are often the people who really push their company to develop a culture of entrepreneurship and innovation.

  • Bottom-up innovation happens when people at the operational level have ideas that are developed upward for management support. A key feature is the business culture – it's entrepreneurial and encourages risk taking.
  • Top-down innovation is different. Management typically initiates it in response to a lucrative business opportunity. In this model, ideas flow downward to lower-level teams. The key feature here is the process – management makes an idea actionable, and then the idea is implemented.

Because these models are different, each requires a different focus and style from innovation leaders. You might think that only bottom-up innovation is "real" innovation, but that's not the case. If your company has truly innovative leadership, both top-down and bottom-up innovation can coexist. They're actually complementary. Suppose a great idea is generated bottom-up. Management might think it could really work and turn it into a top-down project, giving it full support.

Characteristics of an innovation leader

Leaders who are able to build and sustain an innovation culture share a few characteristics. Each of these characteristics of an innovation leader can be manifested in your actions as a leader – actions you can take to improve the business innovation culture in your organization:

  • passionate about innovation – Innovation leaders are passionate about innovation. You can use this to improve the innovation culture by becoming emotionally involved. Show you care about the projects employees are working on. Then, communicate your passion and confidence to your staff. Use different techniques to motivate employees – when they care deeply about their work, their coworkers, and their company, they'll feel more like owners instead of employees.
  • willing to experiment – Innovation leaders accept risks and uncertainty, modeling courage, and demonstrate willingness to think outside the box. They're passionate about innovation and are willing to experiment.
  • realistic and informed – Innovation leaders know how to balance creativity and emotion with a realistic outlook and pragmatic risk management. Encourage creativity and passion, but don't recklessly pursue every idea that comes to mind, or constantly change course. Take calculated risks, but if it seems there's a strong chance the project will fail, pull the plug. One of the principles of risk management is to consider your organization's level of risk tolerance. If shareholders or upper management are risk adverse, you must be more careful than if they're risk tolerant.
  • capable of rapid project execution – Innovation leaders have a knack for spotting opportunities. They identify good ideas and rapidly turning them into business ventures that can provide a time advantage over competitors. To rapidly execute projects, you need clear and achievable goals a view of the steps needed to accomplish these goals. Innovation leaders don't settle for who's available; they pick a "dream team" and leverage people's talents.
  • able to attract and nurture innovators – Leaders should search for innovators in employment-related activities, such as recruiting, hiring, and developing employees. The best way to attract innovators to your company – and then allow them to flourish – is to create a workplace where new ideas take root and turn into success stories. As you reward creativity and work that leads to innovation, your reputation as an innovation leader will allow you to attract and retain the very best employees in your field.

You can find innovation leaders at almost every level of an organization. These leaders are committed to both top-down and bottom-up innovation. Because innovation is different from most other business endeavors, it requires different attitudes and behaviors. Leaders who are able to build and sustain an innovation culture share a few characteristics, which map to the characteristics of an innovation culture. They're passionate about innovation, willing to experiment, realistic and informed, capable of rapid project execution, and able to attract and nurture innovators.