Leading Innovation

Written by: David L. Wells, PhD, CMfgE, LSME – Fargo, North Dakota – February 2017

Over the past 13 years, I have had the privilege of mentoring over seventy student innovation teams at NDSU, including over 300 students.  These students are from all over the university (and some of our academic partners)  —  24 different majors, in all.  We’ve all learned a lot, had some fun and achieved some satisfying successes along the way.  But somewhere in mid-2016 (Summer is a good time for musing), I got to thinking  —  “I’ve been doing this for over a dozen years; what have I learned about stimulating and nurturing innovation?”  So, I started to make some notes.

As in all such endeavors, the first notes were rather random but started to gain some cohesion as I scribbled.  By the time Emerging Prairie surprised me by asking if I could write a bit for this outlet, two themes were emergent  —  development of an innovative workforce and how does one actually lead people to become innovative.

The first theme is the focus of my first foray with EP (may be revisited later).  The latter came more sharply into focus through a couple of informal conversations with people from established companies who have declared that they will become innovative.  I noticed in these conversations that there seemed to be a shortage of implementation strategy.  Simply declaring that the firm wants to be more innovative, but leaving all (or even most) of the old procedures, reporting mechanisms, progress milestones and administrative constraints in place seems like a recipe for underachievement and disappointment.

The central question here is what do managers actually do to induce their staffs to become more innovative?  So, I refocused my thoughts to ask whether some of the lessons learned from mentoring students to become innovators might have application in a broader context.  Thus, this article is an inaugural in an envisioned short series to explore that very question:  Can the lessons learned in mentoring 70-odd student innovation teams find traction in the broader world of commercial business?  I will try to clearly explain what I have learned and hope that readers will help me understand the connectivity.

Disclaimer:  I am a product guy.  All of my innovation teams are oriented to tangible outputs.  I think that the observations that I will share are applicable to software and service industries, including what has come to be called “social innovation”, but I do not claim expertise in those areas.

An essential foundation in “leading innovation” is to recognize some often counter-intuitive factors.  [a] Innovation is not managed.  Rather, one creates an environment where innovation can flourish.  Two very different things!  [b] Nonetheless, innovative activity must be directed.  So, the secret is to introduce just enough structure to keep the team focused on the objectives and to avoid descent into total chaos, but not so much structure that will stifle creativity and risk-taking.

In the matter of maintaining just the right amount of structure in invocation teams, there is value in slogans.  They help keep the spirit of inquisitiveness sharp and lively.  There are many aphorisms in the literature of innovation and entrepreneurship.  Anyone leading an innovation tram should pick (or invent) the ones that fit.  The leading mantras that we use are  …

  • Be Bold!
  • Learn something every day.
  • Get out of your building.
  • It is easier to ask forgiveness than permission.
  • There is no such thing as failure  —  only deferred success.

We also borrow a slogan from Walt Disney: “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible!”

So, on to a collection of observations about how to lead innovation.  Cautionary note:  we made lots of mistakes along this journey  —  and are still learning and refining how to stimulate and nurture innovative thinking, especially how to do so with teams of varying sizes and widely varying backgrounds and experience.  In the next few months, we will be talking about five structural factors for leading innovation:

theme  …  team  …  environment  …  method  …  metrics.

I hope you will join in the conversation!

The views contained in this article are solely those of the author and do not reflect in any way the policies of my university, college or department.