An Innovation Leader's Quest for Credibility

Notes from the Field

In a recent one-day workshop with a group of healthcare executives, the frustration arose that innovation leaders (i.e., those whose portfolio covers innovative investments) must fight for the credibility of the innovation program in ways that their counterparts do not need to. These innovation leaders felt their existence was constantly being called into question, even today, when innovation leadership is needed more than ever in healthcare.  

This exchange got me thinking about how important credibility is to a leader whose charge is to innovate. The act of creating the next generation of products and services involves making promises that are inherently risky. So when we are making a series of risky bets in new technologies and solutions, our stakeholders sometimes conflate these individual risks with the overall innovation program. 

Moreover, an organizational leader must possess a high degree of credibility already in order to operate effectively. Yet, the leader’s individual credibility is not always extended to the innovation function. So there is a disparity – a tremor in the force that must be continuously addressed for innovation to excel. We must evolve our stakeholders capacity for taking risks and making big bets.

An innovation leader would do well to have methods and tools for reinforcing the essential promise of innovation. 

Innovation comes in many different forms, however the leadership function at the heart tends to have golden threads across all innovation programs. As we go about innovating new and inventive ways to grow the business, four particular leadership practices may be useful: 


  • Set the Vision. In the messy work of a typical innovation program, we see pivots and fast failures, and early partnerships come and go, and strange new business models. We need a compelling, articulate vision of the future that overrides the individual portfolios. 
  • Engage Others. The leader should be meeting with teams, learning and hearing many perspectives. Engagement is a multi-sided game, so the leader needs great EQ to do this effectively.  Leadership begins and ends with people – and therefore engagement is the first task. 
  • Be A Sense Maker. Innovation leaders are storytellers and sense makers. How does AI fit into the future of our organization? How will we work with robots in the future? These questions should be storylines that evolve over time in order to form innovation narratives to help other leaders and teams make sense of the wide open future.   
  • Manage Creativity. We need deeply creative teams that can blow up the assumptions of today’s business and reformulate new models for tomorrow. But how do we do this without causing panic? Begin by building firewalls around the creative process – make it safe for stakeholders to engage in a full throated creative agenda. But also ensure that that process has a conclusion and the results are filtered through analytical tools like risk management.
A leader’s stock-in-trade is credibility.

Without it, she has no ability to build trust, influence others, or create momentum.  Leading an innovation program is a potential cred-killer, so the leader must take care to position herself accordingly.  

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Join us over in our LinkedIn Community: Intentional Innovation where we explore a wide range of topics around modern innovation practices and work together to define The Future of New.

You may also enjoy this related article: A Quick Reflection on Grit.

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