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Today’s workplace is complicated. There are many different generations working side-by-side. We are told these different generations have different work ethics and values. Yet at the same time, all generations of workers are impacted by the rapid advances in technology and information sharing. Some people drive daily to an office or manufacturing facility while others telecommute. Even our working hours are shifting.
Amongst this backdrop of new ways and old ways to work is the need for innovation. Study after study teaches that CEOs and shareholders demand innovation for continued top-line growth. Moreover, consumers also demand innovation to keep pace with technical advancements, and especially to ease the burden of everyday chores.
Unfortunately, most CEOs and consumers are disappointed in the outcomes of innovation. New products seem to just keep up with competition and radical innovations are far and few between. Customers are forced to make huge changes, with accompanying large transaction costs, to gain access to better product solutions.
Take, for example, the long, ongoing war between Apple iPhones and Samsung Galaxy devices. Both offer specific features and advantages but to access certain security attributes or open source applications, a user incurs enormous transaction fees in both time and money to change devices. What we really need, instead of product-focused new product development (NPD), is the growth of innovation leaders.
Innovation Leader Characteristics
Innovation leaders are truly rare. They recognize the value of customer insights, while at the same time also they value systematic processes to design and develop new products and services. Innovation leaders understand technical boundaries and drive toward strategic objectives within organizational constraints. Successful leaders motivate and inspire team members to perform their best by modeling open communication, valuing diversity of experience, and supporting learning – even if it is from failure
Innovation leaders must balance technical know-how, budgets, and schedules with growing and developing team behaviors that lead to success. Typically, NPD teams incorporate several disciplines to ensure success, including R&D, engineering, and marketing. When each function speaks its own language, innovation leaders are called to set consistent goals and build collaborative work environments so new products are commercialized in a timely fashion.
3 Tools for Innovation Leaders
Of course, many leaders find that it is a lonely job. They are not part of the team in performing experiments or writing code, and they have to toe the line on expenses and project costs. But the good news is that innovation leaders have three tools at their immediate disposal to increase their proficiency and improve team outcomes.
Many innovation leaders are promoted to their position of management because they were really good technical workers. Unfortunately, the skill set to become an excellent leader is different than that to be a high-performing senior engineer. Coaching can fulfill that skills gap.
Coaching involves a series of one-on-one discussions with an experienced manager or leader. Having gained wisdom, the coach helps to guide a new innovation leader to ask and answer the right questions. A coach can help an innovation leader identify weaknesses (like giving presentations or writing reports) and then offer advice on how to close those gaps (such as taking classes, shadowing an expert, or practicing in a safe environment).
Some companies will provide executive coaching for upcoming leaders. Other times, you will need to honestly recognize a skills gap and hire a coach on your own. But, beware, coaching will touch your weakest points and it will be hard work to overcome and transition those areas into competencies and strengths.
It is not uncommon for companies to offer formal mentoring programs for engineers, marketers, and new managers. In a mentoring program, more junior employees are paired with more senior employees to learn together. Sometimes mentees will shadow their mentors to learn how and why certain actions are taken in a job. For example, an innovation team member may request additional consumer survey data for a particular new product feature. The mentee learns why such data is needed and in which situations a database of customer preferences is considered complete.
One frequent issue that arises in formal mentoring programs is a lack of a true relationship. Because the mentor and mentee are assigned and paired by others, they may not have the same social or personal traits to build a trusting relationship. Sometimes mentors, as senior staff, feel too busy to actively engage a mentee. In these situations, people should request a new pairing. Informal mentoring, within or outside of a firm, is also an important option to grow leadership skills.
Master Mind Groups
Another option for innovation leaders to grow their skills is through a master mind group. A master mind group is different than coaching or mentoring relationships. Instead of one-on-one discussions, master mind groups involve three to eight members that meet regularly (weekly or monthly). Each master mind group member brings experience, knowledge, and opportunity to the group. Most importantly, each master mind group member brings an open attitude to learn, share, give, and get advice on the most challenging topics for innovation and leadership growth. In this way, a master mind group solves problems in real-time.
Typically, during each master mind group meeting, members will share accomplishments since the last meeting. The facilitator may deliver training or invite a guest speaker to address common challenges among the group members. Then, each master mind group member has the opportunity to present a specific innovation challenge. The other master mind group members ask clarifying questions and brainstorm solutions based on their experience. In this way, each issue has a lot of alternatives for answers and the “hot seat” member chooses which solution to pursue as an objective. Click here to read more about master mind groups.
Challenges and brainstorming are rapid-fire which supports creativity and allows everyone to present a challenge at each meeting. The “hot seat” questions and brainstorming lasts about 10 to 15 minutes so that the average meeting length ranges from one to two hours.
Master mind groups are effective for innovation leaders who have been through basic NPD training (self-study NPDP course is included) and need to address implementation and execution of best practices. A key feature of mastermind groups and of coaching is accountability. Committing to goals and ensuring that support is available speeds the knowledge-building process.
Growing and Nurturing Innovation Leaders
Managers often get promoted because of technical expertise. Leaders, however, build specific skills to transform weaknesses into strengths and to help their teams accelerate new product development. Characteristics of transformational leaders include open communication, collaboration, and growth potential. There are three ways the innovation leaders can grow skills.
First, coaching identifies specific management skills for a leader to develop. It often involves 360-degree feedback from other organizational partners to help the innovation leader become successful in a new role. Coaching involves practice and hard work to overcome gaps for someone to advance to the next level.
Next, mentoring is used to fill a particular skills gap. Often, mentoring helps a perosn gain an understanding of technical decision-making. Innovation leaders can serve as both mentors to share knowledge and as mentees to learn and practice new competencies.
Finally, master mind groups use the power of many to address real-time challenges and to brainstorm solutions amongst a panel of experts. Accountability is a key feature of master mind groups because each group member commits to giving and receiving help toward objectives at each meeting.
How Do You Become an Innovation Leader?
To become an innovation leader, you have to honestly assess skills gaps and commit to change. You should talk with both formal and informal mentors. You can hire a coach to help identify and learn new skills. For instance, I offer innovation coaching that helps you identify customer needs before you jump into developing a new product solution. (If you’re interested in innovation coaching please call me at area code 281, phone 2808717.)
Master mind groups are also a great way to become an innovation leader. Basic new product development training teaches you what to do but the mastermind group advice and brainstorming will help you decide when and how to do it. Commitment to goals and accountability allow you to accelerate time-to-market and to implement innovation best practices quickly. Test out the innovation master mind group on 22 August at noon CDT. Register here. Spaces are filling fast “false” Priori