Leadership and Innovation

Leaders seeking to develop a culture of innovation across their organisation must shape an environment through behaviours and structures that unleash the talents of individuals and harness those talents in the form of collective innovation. The harnessing is then useful to the organisation in ways such as new business models, new products, and new processes Last year I was fortunate to attend the program ‘Leading and Building a Culture of Innovation’ at Harvard Business School. Since then I have repeatedly contemplated upon an impactful session at this program which looked at leading for innovation and the paradoxes. This session was run by Professor Linda Hill, the co-author of ‘Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation’ where we looked at the necessary tensions of:

  • Creative abrasion – a marketplace where diverse ideas compete through discourse and debate;

  • Creative agility– the ability to pursue new ideas quickly and proactively through experiments, analyse the outcomes of these experiments, and adjust actions based on learnings; and

  • Creative resolution– the ability to make decisions that integrate disparate ideas into a unified solution.

These tensions are shown in the diagram below.



Courageously, leaders must be able to move between the left (unleash) and right (harness) sides based on the circumstances. Staying focused on the unleash side will be constantly chaotic and rarely solve any problems for the collective purpose. Staying focused on the harness side will rarely unleash the talent within the individuals. Many leaders are promoted in leadership positions for exhibiting behaviours on the right (harness) and if they don’t move along the spectrum to the left (unleash) at specific circumstances will cause a reduction in new ideas and ultimately few useful innovations.

Leaders must manage tensions to create an innovation culture which is supportive enough that individuals are willing to share their ideas, but confrontational enough to refine these ideas and spark new thinking. Passionate discussion and disagreement will cause tension and stress which is emotionally draining; however, it is important for individuals to feel safe in proposing ideas or challenging the status quo whilst making themselves vulnerable and allowing others to challenge their ideas.

Typically, leaders prefer to systematically execute towards an outcome they want through setting goals, plans, and tracking performance until these are achieved. However, this approach rarely produces innovation because innovation requires experimentation where solutions emerge through learning and development of which are usually different from what was initially proposed. Guardrails, rather than tight controls should be put in place to avoid chaos and to ensure failures are not catastrophic.

Leaders need to enable improvisation by giving autonomy to people whilst managing tensions with structure that comes in the form of purpose, goals and constraints. Rigid processes and ways of working can lead to more efficient work, but can lead to predetermined outcomes and missing new opportunities. Organisations over time proliferate the number of control structures they use, such as plans, reports, processes, and policies; which goes against the improvisation that innovation requires.


Critically, leaders must understand that innovation requires patience for people to refine their ideas whilst dealing with the urgency to achieve purposeful outcomes within constraints of deadlines and budgets. The pressure to make premature choices generally results in compromises that rarely produce the best outcomes and serves to demotivate the team. Knowing when to allow debate and discovery and when to make decisions and execute is crucial.

Leaders need to encourage the flow of ideas from bottom-up initiatives which involves participation from the whole organisation, otherwise leaders will have fewer ideas which in turn leads to less innovation. Top-down innovation benefits from focusing on a strong vision and ensuring the right balance between exploration and exploitation.

The Manifesto for Agile Software Development is comprised of four foundational values and finishes with the statement...

'While there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more’

I theorise that this is also the case for the paradoxes of innovation as intention typically precedes impact. My view is that many organisations are founded with intention styled leadership and those organisations over time transition to impact styled leadership before realising the need to embrace the two leadership styles. What is your organisation’s innovation culture like? Have you seen these innovation tensions in play within your organisation? How have you applied tactics to both unleash new innovation and harness useful innovation?

To promote innovation at Unico and to foster collaborative partnerships with the Australian innovation ecosystem, we have recently created a new organisation named uSpark. Details about uSpark can be found at www.uspark.com.au

If you are interested in developing your innovation culture, or would like to share methods on unleashing and harnessing innovation, feel free to reach out to us.

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