The possibility of innovation is born when people transcend the beliefs that limit their thinking, and engage in the search for new and better ways. When people are doing this consistently and throughout your organization, you will see a pattern begin to emerge which you will discover is the dawning of the innovation culture.

This will happen when there is a commitment to the view that everyone in your organization can make real and meaningful contributions to the innovation process. And everyone can, in fact, be an innovator, and part of your job may be to make them believe so, because in company after company it has become conclusively apparent that strong and focused leadership is absolutely required to bring forth and develop innovation on a consistent basis.

And rarely, if ever, has a great company emerged from indifferent leadership.

However, the notion of “culture” as a quality that describes an organization is experiential and emergent, meaning it emerges through action and behavior, but it’s not a quality that comes to life due to a decision that it ought to. Indeed, no one can mandate a particular type of organizational culture (“the beatings will continue until morale improves”), leaders do create the conditions in which it may emerge, and thus it is in creating such conditions that the role of leadership is defined. As Lou Gerstner wrote about the transformation of IBM, “Management doesn’t change culture. Management invites the workforce itself to change the culture.”¹

The existence of an innovation culture is not something that leaders can insist upon, but rather a sensibility that you must evoke and nurture.

Culture change comes about when the beliefs and behaviors of many people, including the leaders as well as many others, become aligned around intent, values, and action. All three matter, and deeply: without intent there will certainly not be innovation; without the contributing values there will not be innovation, and of course without the requisite actions there won’t be innovation either. Hence, the existence of an innovation culture is not something that leaders can insist upon, but rather a sensibility that you must evoke and nurture.

Begin by setting the example of your own behavior, by consistently sharing your views on the importance of innovation, by constantly promoting the value of innovation, and especially by making business choices that favor innovation, even when those choices are difficult ones.

One of the key choices that leaders must make is to set aside their own egos and to adopt instead an attitude of support. Egotism and behaviors that often accompany it, bullying and manipulation, will squash the spirit of innovation, and will in fact lead to the opposite kind of culture, anti-innovation.

People are the core

People are naturally at the very core of everything involving innovation. People (not computers), have ideas and visions about how the future could or should be different. People choose the best ones to invest in. People develop them, transforming rough concepts into precise objects, processes, practices, and ultimately into products and services that other people, as customers, are the ones who buy (or not).

As we saw in the previous chapter, most aspects of the innovation process involve the work of people organized into teams, and while we must not discount the role of individuals and their creative thoughts and inspirations, the bulk of the work is teamwork because innovation is inherently complex in its nature, and multi- disciplinary in its realization.

But as we as also noted, even self-organizing teams are not leaderless. A crew needs the helmsman to steer the ship in the right direction; a symphony, and even a quartet, needs a conductor or a leader; a basketball team needs a point guard, all for the same reasons. Hence, fully engaged and self-organizing teams aren’t characterized by a lack of leadership, but rather by a certain style of leadership.

The right style for your organization depends on who you are and who the team members are, there are consistent themes that recur across many different types of personalities. You can probably make your own list based on your own observations of innovators you’ve met and worked with in the past; our list includes openness, honesty, and sincerity, of course, as well as curiosity, patience for results to emerge, as well as the impatience that drives the process forward.

No matter which specific qualities you feel are most important, the innovation culture as a whole emerges, again when people see their company as an innovator, when this is how they identify themselves, and when they feel that preserving, protecting, and practicing innovation is an essential part of their own self- expectations and of their behaviors. Once achieved, success at innovation is thereby reinforced, and becomes a self-sustaining cycle of attitude, action, and result.

Full engagement

While senior leaders cannot dictate any particular sort of organizational culture into existence, by putting the following key elements in place they can help significantly to bring forth the depth of engagement that characterizes the innovation culture. These actions focus on getting the right people and developing the necessary innovation-related skills, which we discussed in the previous chapter, and by engaging them in the right roles. We’ll discuss these roles here.

Over the course of many years of focused work on innovation, we’ve come to recognize that effective and consistent innovation accomplishments (meaning not just a happy, one-time accident, but consistent performance over the long term) occur where a corporate culture exists in which three specific roles are well understood and well expressed.

Hence, in addition to the agile processes related to portfolio management and speed, and in addition to creating teams with the right mix of technical expertise and innovation skills, there’s also a third dimension through innovation must be proactively managed, and this is in the way you define the major roles in the innovation process.

The three essential roles are:

  1. The creative genius, who displays the technical and innovation skills mentioned above, including empathy, observing, modeling, and rapid prototyping.
  2. The innovation manager, who can also be thought of as a facilitator, coach, or champion, and who keeps the innovation effort moving forward from day to day.
  3. The innovation leader, the senior leader’s responsibility to provide vision, a sense of urgency, resources, and policies that support and enable innovators.²

The three roles are fundamentally different, and while any individual can indeed play all three, they shouldn’t try to do all three at the same time.

This definitely does not mean that each individual can play only one of these roles; in fact everyone in the organization may be a genius, and a manager, as well as a leader. However, the three roles are fundamentally different, and while any individual can indeed play all three, they shouldn’t try to do all three at the same time. When you’re actively engaged in the creative process you may be participating as a creative genius, but during other phases you may be functioning as an innovation leader or manager. Confusing the three leads to dysfunction, and diminishes the quality of the results.

Creative genius

The essential distinguishing characteristic of a creative genius is the capacity to see what others do not see, to uncover secrets through empathy, observation, and ideation that no one else has found. Examples certainly include iconic geniuses throughout history, such as Leonardo da Vinci and Thomas Edison, who saw the world in new ways and discovered concepts, facts, and principles that others had not seen.

Creative geniuses explore incessantly, ask questions constantly, and are driven by their curiosity to understand the world more deeply. This curiosity often leads them to recognize issues and problems that others have ignored or passively accepted, and then to envision how the world could be better. The difference thus created between their visions of future possibilities and what they experience in reality is the source of creative tension that then drives them forward in pursuit of the vision.

Thus, creative geniuses commonly ask questions like “why?” and “what if?” and take creative risk in the quest for satisfying answers.

Many are fearless and inexhaustible in the pursuit of solutions to the complex problems that they’re curious about. They may also be quite disciplined about this, gathering research, rigorously developing models that explain complex realities, and endlessly exploring new ideas and possibilities. This innate creative process matches very well with the process of conducting research, and of course it’s invaluable during the pursuit of innovation.

However, we’ve also noticed that some creative geniuses can be difficult to deal with. Perhaps this is because they’re so focused on their own curiosity, their own ideas, and on the questions that particularly interest them, and as result they sometimes neglect polite conversation or social convention. This is one of the dynamics that can creep into innovation teams, and it must be closely managed, as creative individuals can be tremendously valuable but sometimes annoying, and it’s critical to prevent annoyance from ballooning into polarizing anger.

Since creative genius is so tremendously valuable to organizations precisely because the qualities and characteristics that make the work of creative geniuses so important, they may need to be supported in a unique and specific way so that they can remain as contributing members while avoid creating extra frustration for themselves or for others.

Another great characteristic of creative geniuses is that they’re also quite willing to fail at any given time as long as they feel as they’re on the road to success. We remember Thomas Edison’s experience developing the light bulb, which required perhaps 10,000 attempts to find a filament before success was achieved. Edison himself didn’t experience those as failures, and own comment about that process was very revealing. He supposedly said, simply, “We learned 9,999 ways not to make a light bulb.”³

For Edison, this process of “learning with certainty” was a necessary and satisfying result, where others may have seen ego- damaging failure. Such persistence is also characteristic of the creative genius, and is a highly desirable attribute for the people on your team to have on when you’re grappling with difficult problems.

Hence, you’ll want to recruit many creative geniuses to your organization, and you’ll also have to guide and support them. Those are key roles for innovation champions.

Innovation champions

The second key role to support the innovation culture is that of innovation manager or champion. We’ve also called this person the coach or facilitator; all of these titles are valid.

Champions play the role of conductor, captain, and scrum leader, which they do by opening the way for others, by organizing and supporting the innovation process, and by providing the right tools and infrastructure so that others can be successful.

This is not, however, a champion in the sense of an Olympic record- holder, the one and only best athlete, but the older and less self- centered concept of one who selflessly serves and represents others,  such as the way a Medieval knight or champion was expected to do service to his king, lord, or lady.

Champions in contemporary organizations are often are middle managers who serve as the bridge between senior managers working at the strategic level, and others who work close to or directly with customers. Their job in this situation is to understand the realities of the marketplace, the specific needs and desires of customers, as well as the organization’s overall strategic direction, and to serve as a conduit of information and guidance in both directions.

And a great thing about being an innovation champion is precisely because they have both the strategic and the operations perspectives, they can work around or eliminate entirely the constraints that limit the performance of the organization. Hence, they know when and how to modify the rules in order to pursue and achieve innovation goals that are so important and so valuable that rule-breaking in the pursuit of the right goals is justified, especially when we recognize that the point of the rules it to facilitate the work (the innovative intent), not the other way around (the bureaucratic imperative).

In a project focused role, innovation champions contribute to success in these essential ways:

Champions in contemporary organizations are often are middle managers who serve as the bridge between senior managers working at the strategic level, and others who work close to or directly with customers.

  • Keeping innovation teams fully engaged in their commitment to speed and results.
  • Focusing teams on accountability and delivering results.
  • Supporting groups of individuals to function well as a team.
  • Helping all individuals develop their own capabilities.
  • Providing teams with needed resources while removing roadblocks.
  • Coaching teams and customers.
  • Orchestrating a team’s rhythm.
  • Helping teams connect their work with organizational priorities and strategies

Hence, the essence of a champion’s role lies not creating Gantt charts or status reports (although those are still needed); it is being focused on creating and facilitating high-performance.

After assembling a great team of people with the right combination of experience, talent, and aptitude, you may also have to spend some time managing team alignment. As we mentioned in Chapter 5, even if every member of the team is a bona fide genius, or especially if they are, then the potential for conflict due to clashing egos and complex, “team-destroying” interpersonal issues remains. Acknowledging this possibility is a first and perhaps most important step in avoiding it.

Dealing proactively with it is the next. In fact, this role is so important to success that it deserves an entire chapter, which will follow after we describe the third critical role in the innovation culture, the innovation leader.

A very useful skill for the successful innovation champion to possess is a systems thinking perspective. The most successful champions are capable of making the critical links between the purpose of innovation and the process of achieving innovation in a comprehensive way, connections that are critical to obtaining support and to ultimately creating value. Hence, the innovator is often a generalist with experience across many fields and disciplines, rather than a specialist with a deep expertise in only one.

Innovation leaders

The third essential role is that of innovation leader, which is probably you. This person looks to the future and engages the entire organization in the quest to achieve the goals, the vision, and the better ways that are defined by the organization’s strategic objectives.

Leaders are those who set policies, who determine, for example, how much capital is going to be invested in the innovation effort overall. They provide guidance, and may be the final decision makers who decide the right balance between investment in incremental innovation and investment in breakthroughs and new business models. They also set goals, establish the innovation targets, and define many of the specific accomplishments that the organization should achieve. And like champions, they constantly work to keep people fully engaged in the commitment to and effort to create innovation, as they know that without full engagement, innovation just does not happen.

Leaders will also articulate their expectations for the innovation process and for the broad participation of people throughout the organization in its long and fascinating journey.

However, one of the most important roles for innovation leaders, if not the most important, is to set the tone by their own example, demonstrating their commitment to the innovation journey by passionately inspiring and encouraging, sometimes requiring other people participate in the process.

Many innovation leaders have also found that celebrating notable failures and the learning that results is a very positive message for the organization to receive. At Tata Group, for example, which is one India’s greatest corporations, the annual worldwide innovation contest attracts dozens of teams from all the company’s dozens of business units to share their successes and to compete for acknowledgment. In recent years, the company added another category to the innovation awards program, a category called “Dare to Try,” which acknowledges and celebrates notable ideas that were not successful – failures, in other words. When Tata Chairman Mr. Ratan Tata stands up in front of the annual ceremony and announces the winners in the Dare to Try category, he sends a powerful message throughout the organization, reaffirming that intelligent failure is necessary, appreciated, and valued. From such actions, and in such a culture, it is quite easy to see the seeds of greatness emerge.

Support for the innovation process thus requires leaders to accept and acknowledge the value of intelligent failure in innovation.

A culture in which it’s safe to fail, both as a matter of policy and as a reality of daily life and work, allows and encourages people to explore their own ideas, and to follow these ideas wherever they may lead. Any sincerely achieved outcome, whether initially labeled as success or failure, is recognized as valuable since what is learned from all thoughtful efforts achieves the growth of knowledge that leads to success.

Together, the three roles played well compose an effective organizational approach upon which the right people with the right skills can set on an engaged course to discover and to create the future. In its fullest expression, the innovation culture is a profound accomplishment and the basis upon which future successes can be built.

Innovation culture metrics

As you work to develop the innovation culture in your organization, and to evaluate its performance, one of the most important metrics to consider is the one we already explored: speed. Applying the principles and practices described here should lead to a significant acceleration of innovation project completion, steadily faster year after year.

Your organization can also get faster and better at turning ideas into completed innovations that deliver value in the marketplace, and over time you should expect to see an increasing number of people who are participating in the innovation process across all phases, from research to idea gathering throughout development.

In engaged organizations, innovation is the cool, exciting place to be, the enthusiastic hope for the future, and eventually everyone will want to join in on the fun and the satisfaction that comes from it. That spirit will contribute enormously to achieving your end goal, which of course is innovations that generate stunning revenues and handsome profits and organizational vitality and longeivity.

You should also expect the quality of the innovation contributions of each person to rise. The capability of individuals, teams, departments and entire business units will improve, and as the ongoing performance of the organization and its innovation efforts thrive at the same time, the much saught-after virtuous cycle will result.

The quality of the ideas that are being shared should also improve. As people learn, they naturally recognize business opportunities that are less obvious, and they can propose better opportunities for both incremental and for breakthrough innovation possibilities.

Overall, the goal is constant improvement, continuous and valuable learning that is applied and transformed into positive business outcomes. While the focus is on the actions needed to meet the challenges of external change, the larger goal is to perceive change as an ally, to embrace new mindsets that will yield increasing value for the company.

This is the ultimate benefit of developing an innovation culture in your organization and is potentially a massive return on the significant investment of time and effort.

Taking action

In general, it’s really easy to see the strengths and weaknesses of others, but difficult to get a clear view of your won. To gain a deeper understanding of the culture of your own organization you’ll therefore need to step outside of it and look back to see what’s really going on, how people are relating to one another, where the tensions and dysfunctions are hidden, and what’s working really well.

Such an assessment can then help you to target the improvements that will result in strong performance across all three of the critical roles.

By Langdon Morris

About the author:

Since 2001, Langdon Morris has led the innovation consulting practice of InnovationLabs LLC, where he is a senior partner and co-founder. He is also a partner of FutureLab Consulting. He is recognized as one the world’s leading thinkers and consultants on innovation, and his original and ground-breaking work has been adopted by corporations and universities on every continent to help them improve their innovation processes and the results they achieve. His recent works Agile Innovation, The Innovation Master Plan and Permanent Innovation are recognized as three of the leading innovation books of the last 5 years.


  1. Louis V. Gerstner, Jr. Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance? HarperBusiness, 2002. P 187.
  2. The description of the three essential roles is adapted from Langdon Morris, The Innovation Master Plan: The CEO’ s Guide to Innovation. Innovation Academy, 2011, Chapter 7.
  3. This quote is a probably paraphrase, and the exact number remains a mystery. Literature searches disclose a range of numbers from hundreds to thousands, and comments attributed to Edison that vary in the specific wording, but carry the same basic message.

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