Leading an Innovation Project
Learn Innovation Your Style
Written by: Ella Muja and Jemina Laitinen
Introduction to the topic and Summer Academy
At the end of August, the team company Flip Solutions had the opportunity to participate in Summer Academy, a weeklong innovation challenge. The participants of the challenge were from both Proakatemia and Innokick, a master’s program from Switzerland. With students from various parts of the world, the innovation project was set in a multicultural and multilingual environment.
Each innovation team, which was made up of a mix of both Swiss and Proakatemia students, was assigned one company (Ramboll, Tribe Tampere, or Tampereen sähkölaitos) who presented a challenge at the beginning of the week. The teams were given free rein on how to organize themselves and approach the challenges received. Therefore, following essay will examine the importance of selecting a leader during innovation related projects and challenges, where Summer Academy acts as the background for the context.
Experiences from Summer Academy related to innovation leadership (Ella & Jemina)
In my team, we had six members from the Innokick program and two from Proakatemia, creating an imbalance when it comes to working styles and cultural differences. Out of our team, three had team academy experience, one had a background as a designer, and the rest had engineering experience. The company we were assigned, Tribe Tampere, presented a challenge related to internal stakeholder communication challenges. Throughout the week my team was able to develop a solution that covered the customer’s needs and prioritized efficiency, simplicity, and clarity.
Our team was similar to Ella’s team in composition: Six members from the Innokick program and two from Proakatemia, with expertise in graphic design, marketing and engineering. These skills were particularly helpful in completing our assignment for Tampereen Sähkölaitos.
However, it became immediately apparent on the first day when we gathered as a group, that picking team roles and a leader was uncommon practice for our fellow Swiss students. Myself and the other student from Proakatemia made efforts to share our thoughts and experiences on the importance of deciding a team leader for the week, but they were shut down quite quickly, and in the end our team did not have a leader. For instance, we explained how a team leader does not act as a dictator or decide on everything, but instead provides direction for the project, challenges us to think outside of the box, and support our work. Although we never got to the bottom of the misunderstanding, we assumed that cultural differences and personal experiences played a large role in the resistance for choosing a leader.
Unfortunately, due the sick leave, I was absent for the first day of the challenge. When I was joined at the second day, I had an assumption that team have organized themselves by dividing roles and choosing a leader. As Ella mentioned, we at Proakatemia have been trained to understand an importance of leader’s role, and it is most likely the first thing what to do when starting a new project or doing any task in the team. In our team, there weren’t leader as well as Ella’s team. My team told me that their choice were work in flat organization. It was visible that the idea and experiences about leadership could be somehow negatively oriented since having a leader in the project was crucially shooted down by Innokick students. We didn’t discus about the reasons about their thoughts towards leadership and therefore cannot be said where that resistance towards leadership comes from.
Absence of leadership were visible in struggles towards decision making, organizing tasks as well as communication and therefore it is interesting to ponder, why is it important to have a leader in the project and a team, even though the period of time would be short and limited.
Description of innovation and leadership
To dive deeper into the terms innovation and leadership, and how they are connected, they will be defined and accompanied by examples in the paragraphs below. This essay specifically focuses on leadership and innovation, and how they are connected as concepts based on the experience Jemina and Ella had during the Summer Academy innovation week.
According to McKinsey & Company (2022), innovation is, “the systematic practice of developing and marketing breakthrough products and services for adoption by customers.” Essentially, this means that innovation combines ideation, creativity, and development to further grow a business to attract customers and it has been referred to as a technological process over time. (McKinsey & Company 2022 and Shalaby 2022.) Shalaby (2022) emphasize that innovation, in fact, is one of the oldest process regarding of history of human being, because it is a action of keeping us alive. In other term, innovation can be described simply as a problem solving (Shalaby 2022). This description gives broaden idea about innovation and therefore make it more approachable.
Many times, innovation has the end goal of increasing revenue or profit for a company, in turn meaning catering to new customers or appealing to old ones (McKinsey & Company 2022). Innovation has the possibility to also be used in multiple different circumstances and isn’t limited to just products. A company could also innovate and develop their services, processes, or business model (Gibson 2022). For example, innovating new policies within a company for onboarding or training to allow for more efficient work is one way to utilize innovation to develop a company further internally.
Successful innovation process
When focusing on creating a successful innovation within a business there are three main steps or focus points to consider:
- Understanding who the customer or end user is, as this determines whether the solution provides any value.
- The actual innovation will need to be defined and understood by all stakeholders involved.
- The solution or innovation must have an implementation plan answering ‘how?’. In this last step, analyzing resources, results, feasibility, and purpose are crucial.
(McKinsey & Company 2022).
Being an innovative company reflects creativity, which refers to the introduction of new ideas, transformation of old ideas or combining different ideas to new form to bring value. Additionally, creativity can be seen as an ability to step out of the comfort zone and can even set it apart from others within the industry. (McKinsey & Company 2022 and Shalaby 2022.)
According to Shalaby (2022), creativity requires three things to appear successfully. Those three things are: knowledge, creative thinking and motivation. Knowledge refers to the balance between facts and expertise in a real area. This means that to be creative, there needs to be some knowledge about the focused field to be able to filter ideas properly but without practical experiences with only “by book” knowledge can cause problems.
Creative thinking entails an ability to generate, evaluate and put the best ideas into practice. The most successful innovations come often from companies which innovate more than others. This requires the mindset of giving it a try and not being afraid of failure. (Shalaby 2022.)
People are least creative by driven by external pressure (Shalaby 2022), and that is something needs to be taking into the consideration when thinking about leading innovation and organization in general. Creativity appears from the interest, satisfaction and the interests towards the challenge regarding of innovation and creativity (Shalaby 2022).
Innovation skill is an exercisable skill with multiple different tools
The best way to improve innovation skills and become more efficient is through practice. More specifically, practicing innovation in various situations where the end result is different (product, service, process, etc.). Thankfully, there are endless amounts of innovation tools for various stages of the innovation process.
One common innovation tool that can be used to further develop an idea or innovation is SCAMPER (Pumpo 2019). This tool is an acronym that contains seven different innovation steps where the existing idea can be filtered through each step in a creative way. During the Summer Academy, this tool was covered, and the team Flip Solutions has used this tool in the past when participating in an innovation challenge. The acronym stands for the following (Pumpo 2019):
S – Substitute: This step focuses on replacing a part of the product or service.
C – Combine: The second step focuses on the idea of merging multiple ideas.
A – Adapt: The third step allows for the changing of an idea that will produce an improved output.
M – Modify: The fourth step aims at altering the size of the idea or modifying the process in which the idea is created.
P – Put to another use: The fifth step focuses on using the current idea or materials to solve a different challenge.
E – Eliminate: The sixth step encourages innovators to remove an aspect of the idea entirely to improve it in some way.
R – Reverse: The seventh and last step of this innovation tool aims at changing the order of how the idea is executed.
To take a company’s innovation skills to the next level, practicing innovation where various industries, countries, and cultures are involved will add extra learning opportunities and perspectives. In an article written by Binz and Truffer for the Journal of Research Policy in 2017, it is stated that innovation processes and tools vary across the world and even across regional industries. Collaboration between various groups is encouraged, however, only to a certain extent as too many innovation processes can create confusion.
To sum up the term innovation, a few real-world examples of innovative companies will be explained below. After this, the topic of leadership will be explained.
- The first company is Gavi, a partnership that was established to save the lives of children and improve health by increasing the access to immunizations. In order to develop their strategy and reach more people, the organization set goals without any financial targets to ensure time-bound and impactful results. (McKinsey & Company 2022).
- The second company is Apple. Although shown as an example whenever innovation is mentioned, it is wrong to leave them out. Apple changed the cellular phone technology and music industry entirely all while keeping in mind their target customer’s desires of simplicity and portability. (Gibson 2022).
- The last company, Dyson, is a well-known cleaning technology company. Similar to Apple, they focused on issues and annoyances that customers have when using vacuums. While designing a new vacuum, they innovated to create a bagless vacuum cleaner that saves time and energy for all users. Now, Dyson vacuums are highly rated for how well they work and how easy they are to use. (Gibson 2022).
Leadership in innovation
Leadership and innovation are closely related together. Leadership is organizing a group of people to work towards the common goal, and it entails social influence and support to accomplish a given task. (Slimane 2015.) As Perri et al. (2019) highlight, innovation leaders are the key players in growth, performance and valuation (Perri et al. 2019). So, why this would be different in a short-term innovation project or intensive innovation challenge?
An important task of the leader during an innovation challenge or project is bringing clarity and purpose during the process (Porumboiu 2022 and Slimane 2015). For example, it is common to get confused at some point during innovation or lose the core of the assignment. That can happen when people get excited about a given task or when the innovation process has been going on that long that the core definition of the task has been faded. In this case, the leader’s role is to bring the process together by asking for clarification of innovation and ideas to make sure that the given assignment has been followed properly.
One of the important tasks for the innovation leader is to change the perspective if needed. In addition, it is crucial that there is someone who overviews the task and makes sure that innovation process follows instructions of the task as well as it goes towards set goal. (Porumboiu 2022.) When someone’s role is to keep the team on track, it gives room and relaxation to others to focus on innovating and other tasks. That would bring a more efficient platform for working as well as positive atmosphere during the project. When there are no leader, leading and keeping everything on track is everyone’s responsibility and cause a rush and a mess at the end.
Hence, as Shalaby (2022) highlights, innovation and creativity requires motivation, and Slimane (2015) emphasizes that one of the leader’s role is to motivate and inspire people during the innovation (Shalaby 2022 and Slimane 2015). Therefore, it is crucial that someone who is leading the process sees when energy or motivation collapses, because it is natural that at some point in intensive challenge energy or interest level drops. Even though it sounds obvious that team needs positive mindset, breaks and a motivative coaching etc., it might not be a natural and that obvious anymore, when people lack an interest towards the task, innovation flow disappears, or team get stuck in some details and struggles to get forward. In that case, leadership is required to take team forward by having a one-to-one chat, giving a coaching by asking a question or simply, just remind how amazing work people are doing. Human beings easily fall into concern about their own work and overthinking decisions. When someone else is taking the responsibility of overviewing the situation and saying that “This is good, keep going”, it gives team members relief and comfort.
However, when Shalaby (2022) emphasizes the motivation for creativity needs to be based on internal sources and inspiration. When thinking about assignment of the “mandatory school project”, which can be a task that is not related to a field of team’s preferred industry, how can motivation be found and implemented in those cases? On the other hand, a leader can be the person who finds individual’s strengths that can be implemented in given task and help that person to find something interesting in the job.
When taking into the consideration of multicultural and multilingual team, there would be a need for someone, whose job is to make sure that everyone knows what to do and how team could communicate the most efficient way, even though there might not be common fluent language and working culture might differ. The lack of leadership can be shown as unnecessary concerns about clarity, timing, schedule and communication between team members, that at the end, can be seen as a lack of interest, motivation as well as productivity which of course, can lead to the results that are not that successful that would prefer.
This essay was considering innovation challenge through the definition of innovation, presenting one useful innovation tool and reasoning the importance of leadership in innovation process, as well as presenting experiences about multicultural innovation challenge of authors of this essay. As a conclusion, it is important to understand the innovation process and what it requires to be successful. Innovation skills can be improved through practicing, and there are many different tools for doing that. In business organizations innovation is required for success, and innovation can be implemented in many different operations of business. Hence, innovation is only another term of problem solving which means that it is a natural part of a human being’s life.
Innovation is a process that needs to be lead, and cruciality of leader’s role appears especially in situations, when focus or core of assignment is lost. Leader is a person, who help team to find a task and definition of assignment if needed, as well as reminding the goal of the project. Leader is also the person who overviews the process and helping every team member to success and be accountable. During the process, there are always some struggles, so leader’s task is to motivate and help team to keep going and create the space and atmosphere of creativity.
Banz, C. & Truffer, B. 2017. Global Innovation Systems: A conceptual framework for innovation dynamics in transnational context. Journal of Research Policy 46 (7), 1284-1298. https://doi-org.libproxy.tuni.fi/10.1016/j.respol.2017.05.012
Gibson, K. 2022. 9 Examples of Innovative Products. Harvard Business School Online. Read 21.11.2023. https://online.hbs.edu/blog/post/innovative-product-examples
McKinsey & Company. 2022. What is innovation? Read 20.11.2023. https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/mckinsey-explainers/what-is-innovation
Perri, S. T, Farrington, T., Johnson, S., O’Connor, G. C. 2019. Today’s Innovation Leaders: In a changing environment, innovation leaders need a wide range of skills to succeed and take varied paths to the role. Research technology management, 2019, Vol.62 (1), p.20-29. Access required. Accessed 30.11.2023. https://www-tandfonline-com.libproxy.tuni.fi/doi/pdf/10.1080/08956308.2019.1541726?needAccess=true
Porumboiu, D. 2022. How to Lead Innovation and Embrace Innovative Leadership. Read 29.11.2023.
Pumpo, A. 2019. SCAMPER Technique for Creative Thinkers. Europass Teacher Academy. Read 17.11.2023. https://www.teacheracademy.eu/blog/scamper-technique-for-creative-thinkers/
Shalaby, A. 2022. Know how to learn innovation your style.
Slimane, M. 2015. Relationship between Innovation and Leadership. Article: Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences 181. May 2015. Read 30.11.2023. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/277026528_Relationship_between_Innovation_and_Leadership