The Future of Innovation Leadership


October 14, 2021


Man holding lightbulb

Most people would agree that we live in a rapidly changing world. Consequently, just about everyone is constantly under pressure to adapt, create, and/or innovate. For companies, it is important to understand that innovation should not be a side project. Innovation should actually be happening everywhere. In companies and other organizations, that includes the CTO office, all business units, advanced development labs, as well as all the early stage disruptive initiatives.

On behalf of the firm, someone does need to “own and be responsible for the innovation mission” across the organization. But what is the best method to do that? Many firms have Chief Innovation Officers or other types of innovation leaders. These leaders manage, coordinate, and often incubate new projects. It is actually a daunting challenge to make a significant impact. In fact, many of these Innovation Leaders (CIOs, CTOs, etc.) even end up in a war for resources with other divisions and innovative groups.

However, a new model may be emerging. In this new model, the main function of the Innovation Leader is not to directly develop the innovation, nor is it to cross-coordinate. In this new model the goal is to offer internal education and coaching. By directly providing education as a service, the Innovation Lead is not competing for the same type of resources or credit with others in the organization.  

To put form to function, consider that this “Innovation Leadership function” might take the form of a person leading a small team, or it may have the form of an external “innovation advisory board” that is focused on accelerating innovation across the firm.

Before considering the nature of this emerging new model, let’s be clear on what it is not.

  • This model is not about running an incubator within the firm.
  • It is not about a new advanced development group. Innovation needs to be everywhere and connected.
  • It is not about a ‘hackathon’ for new ideas. There are plenty of ideas and initiatives already in the pipeline in any organization.
  • This is not about creating a database of projects in the firm. Management already knows about projects and initiatives.

I am more inspired and aligned by the story of Google Maps which was started by employee 1500 at Google than with the story of Facebook which was started by an entrepreneur as employee #1. Both products have had a large impact on the world, but only one was developed within an existing organization. In this example, Google Maps is not the outcome of a hackathon or other search for ideas. Instead, this is the more typical scenario of a longer innovation journey focused on solving a real problem within an existing organization.

Remember that we are talking about changing the primary role of the innovation leader from manager to teacher and coach. Again, this may be an internal position or it may be driven by a more external advisory group such as an innovation oriented advisory board. 

Regardless of location, the lead or group does need credibility! Think of Bill Campbell (Trillion Dollar Coach) who focused on technology, business, and innovation culture. This function or role should switch from managing to providing formal education and informal coaching. In this model, the new CIO function or Innovation Board will more likely be a resource to the rest of the firm instead of a competing resource.

I’ve seen this work in the Engineering Leadership Professional Program (ELPP) for over a decade. It is possible to combine a minimal yet highly focused educational program, network connections, and very real-life project coaching to achieve incredible results. However, there are limits to what we can do as a university on the outside of a firm. In the non-academic model, a corporate Innovation Leadership group can go deeper into the actual problems in the firm without concern of IP issues. Further, incentives can be aligned between the advisor or leader and the firm.

In terms of program models, many options can work well within firms. These may include short education and coaching programs. Assessment by management is also a key feature so that the rest of the management can better redistribute resources for greater impact. Over time, successful mentees could then join the advisor/mentor pool to help scale the innovation model in order to build greater capacity over time within the firm.

Finally, note that this approach is measurable as well. It should not be measured by growth of budget, but instead assessed similarly to teaching and coaching. For example:

  • Do the teams like getting this help?
  • Is the coaching prioritized with strategic issues?
  • Are you mixing all the right people?
  • What is the quality of a mentor network both inside and outside of the organization?
  • Is the advisory group or network matched to the needs of the initiatives?
  • And importantly for any organization, in this new model, can the leader support innovation and also get along with the lab heads and other innovative leaders?

Thank you also to those in my network who contributed thoughtful feedback and discussion on this topic. It turns out that there is still no consensus on the debate between the internal versus external model. Some say that this new innovation leadership function “cannot be outsourced” and must be internal because it is strategic in most firms. On the other hand, others say that an external innovation advisory board will have greater influence than any one single leader within the organization. Perhaps both will work depending on the organization.  

We did have positive feedback that the coaching model has indeed worked before. And one more valuable point is that these innovation leadership functions by their nature might be transitional. If so, the function, whether internal or external, should be created for a period of time and only for the purpose of facilitating a change, or more broadly speaking, an innovation.  

While we could discuss the many options for both structure and process, the larger point is that a new model may be emerging. We have observed this pattern based on our experiences in Silicon Valley and our success with Berkeley’s Engineering Leadership program.