Bottom-up innovation is fueled by many ideas initiated by employees, as opposed to top-down innovation, which is fueled by a strong vision – often by the company’s founder. Bottom-up innovation leaders are entrepreneurial, supported by management’s emphasis on creativity and a can-do culture, and often share these eight attributes.

Everyone in the innovation blogosphere recognizes that innovation proceeds through two complementary modes: top down and bottom up.

Top-down innovation, as exemplified by Elon Musk’s companies – Tesla and Space X among others – is initiated and fueled by a strong vision, most often of the company’s founder. It is ambition-driven and implemented by senior leaders who organize the process from vision to reality. It happens with the support of the company’s employees who buy in and align with the vision.

Bottom-up innovation, as illustrated by Google and the archetypal 3M Company, is fueled by the many ideas initiated by employees. It is driven by entrepreneurs and is supported by a top management emphasis on creativity and the development of a can-do culture.

Both modes require dedicated innovation leaders, but these leaders have quite different characteristics and behavioral attributes.

In my experience, bottom-up innovation leaders are good at four major tasks:

  • They seek, organize and channel organizational creativity, i.e. the creativity of teams;
  • They identify, recognize and support innovation champions, who challenge the status quo and pioneer new ways of doing things;
  • They attract, develop and reward entrepreneurs – the people who take risks and make things happen;
  • They understand what makes the essence of a can-do climate, monitor its characteristics and improve it constantly.

To do this, bottom-up innovation leaders have at least eight critical aptitudes.

1. They are great scouts for talent, creativity and passion

Bottom-up innovation leaders like to be surrounded by positive and talented individuals. They pursue and deploy small teams of A+ players, thus following Steve Jobs’ exhortation to turn the company into a “meritocracy of ideas with passionate people.”[1] They focus on leadership potential, which HR specialist Claudio Fernández-Aráoz[2] believes is more important than competencies per se. He defines potential as the combination of five elements: motivation, curiosity, insight, engagement and determination, all of them essential for innovation.

Bottom-up innovation leaders look for people with passion and an ability to share it. From his experience in head-hunting, Fernández-Aráoz proposes that there are three common motivators of these passionate people : autonomy, mastery and sense of purpose.[3] Daniel Borel, the charismatic co-founder of Logitech, stresses the importance of passion, saying, “We make a living, we exist and survive because of innovation. So, if someone would not share that passion at every level, he would not join Logitech.”[4]

In their search for creative people, bottom-up innovation leaders do not hesitate to hire, deploy and support mavericks, individuals who keep challenging the organization by regularly coming up with different ideas. Mavericks are often resented and considered to be “unguided missiles” by traditional organizations. However, if properly channeled, mavericks can bring new perspectives that may disrupt the competitive status quo.

Finally, bottom-up innovation leaders focus on detecting aspiring champions, people who are neither prima donnas nor individualists, but who have the potential to promote collaborative problem solving.

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2. They are rigorous innovation frame setters

Bottom-up innovation leaders accept that serendipity will always remain an important source of creative ideas, yet they hope to increase the odds by proposing framing guidelines to their teams. They know that opportunities and threats often come from changes in the corporate environment. So they encourage their teams to build insight and foresight about these changes. The objectives of this search for intelligence are (1) to identify and validate early signals of changes in the company’s regulatory, industry and market environment; (2) to anticipate the creation or convergence of new market segments; (3) to sense emerging trends in customer behavior; (4) to detect likely disruptive pressures on current business models; and (5) to anticipate the emergence of new technologies and competitors.

Bottom-up innovation leaders know that they can increase their chances of success by channeling the creativity of their teams towards strategic priority areas for the company. They can do so by defining clearly where innovation is desired as a priority, e.g. new products, new services and solutions, new processes and ways to go to market, new business models, etc. The challenge, as usual for all bottom-up initiatives, is to provide framing guidelines without rigidly constraining the scope of the search for ideas.

Since bottom-up innovation efforts typically result in the generation and collection of lots of ideas, it is the leaders’ responsibility to define, early on, how idea portfolios will be evaluated. This means proposing a process and tools for idea screening and evaluation. A critical component of this process is the definition of a small number of screening and ranking criteria. The two sets of criteria often tend to be mixed, leading to a chaotic idea classification. Screening criteria – often quantitative and liable to have a yes or no answer – aim to narrow the portfolio by eliminating ideas that do not seem to meet a “must have” performance requirement. Ranking criteria, by contrast, aim to judge ideas against each other, typically on their attractiveness and fit with the organization’s capabilities or resources.

3. They are astute team composers and coaches

Innovation leaders recognize the importance of deploying high-performance teams, particularly for bottom-up innovation, which relies to a large extent on self-guided teams. No one expressed it better than Ed Catmull, the charismatic co-founder of Pixar and now president of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios, when he said: “If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up! If you give a mediocre idea to a great team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something that works!”[5] Great teams will typically feature complementary profiles, competencies and attitudes. On the last point, in her innovation course at MIT, Rebecca Henderson liked to characterize the attitude of great innovation teams as “high-conflict but high-respect.”

Linda Hill, of Harvard Business School, goes further in characterizing bottom-up innovation leaders. She claims that they promote three capabilities:[6] (1) creative abrasion, which comes from an emphasis on team diversity and an acceptance of positive confrontation; (2) creative agility, which reflects an ability for reflection and adjustment as the team overcomes obstacles; and (3) creative resolution, which requires a fair amount of patience and a willingness to be inclusive, i.e. to ensure all team members have had a chance to express their views and ultimately support the final decision.

In essence, bottom-up innovation teams need to be granted a great deal of autonomy from management. Bottom-up innovation leaders will therefore ensure that the autonomy they give their teams covers the four “T domains” outlined by Fernández-Aráoz in his HBR article,[7] i.e. autonomy in time (freedom to set the project schedule); task (freedom to define the job to be done); team (freedom to select team members); and technique (freedom to establish the team’s own process). But autonomy does not mean total laissez-faire – bottom-up leaders need to follow from a distance what the teams are doing and, above all, make themselves fully available for coaching, advice and support.

4. They are both advocates and challengers of ideas 

Bottom-up innovation leaders work hard to ensure their organization is receptive and constructive with regard to people’s ideas. This task is generally never-ending given the typical pressures on management time and people’s assigned priorities. This is why tools and processes are needed to give all ideas a chance to be heard and explained before a judgment is made.

The creation of a formal ideation process funnel, independent of anyone’s direct hierarchy, is one of the most classical tools used by innovative companies. It guarantees that anyone submitting an idea receives an acknowledgement and is informed of the process by which the idea will be evaluated. Some more sophisticated companies have set up an “idea matchmaking” function, whose task is to ensure ideas go directly where they have the greatest chances of being considered, accepted and implemented. In that respect, idea matchmakers link idea submitters to potential idea enrichers and, ultimately, idea takers.

But bottom-up innovation leaders do not stop there. They do not hesitate to challenge idea submitters about their perception of value created. They ask recurring questions, like “What’s in it for our customers? What’s in it for our company?” By doing so, and doing it repeatedly, they build an almost natural or instinctive focus on value creation within the organization.

They also challenge and question people on their hypotheses. Every aspect of a project should be bombarded with questions. Challenging leaders do not simply ask What? but What if? and What else? They don’t limit themselves to Why? but often ask Why not? They will not only consider Who? but also Who else? Similarly, they won’t stop at How? but also ask How much? and How else? Challenging people seriously and constructively without discouraging them unduly requires social skills and a good sense of balance on the part of leaders.

5. They act as “swords and shields” for their team

This image of innovation leaders acting as a “sword and shield” for their teams has often been presented as a necessary countermeasure to avoid the dangers of excessive team autonomy and hence isolation. Bottom-up innovation leaders adopt a hands-off approach to their team agenda and functioning, but they keep an eye on external pressures that could derail the project and/or reduce team motivation.

Acting as a sword is necessary to cut through unnecessary time-consuming tasks and bureaucracy. Large organizations have many corporate rules that are generally designed to ensure operational conformance. Some of these rules may hinder teams’ freedom to conduct innovative projects. Many of these rules deal with financial justifications of expenses, e.g. for travel, or investments, e.g. for tools. Others relate to the requirement for documentation ahead of important decisions. It is therefore the responsibility of bottom-up innovation leaders to identify with their teams which rules, justifications and documentation should be set aside for their particular project. This may of course raise eyebrows in some management and control functions, but it is up to the team leaders to convince their managers that the team will act responsibly and carry out a transparent process of internal project documentation under the supervision of their innovation leader.

Acting as a shield is just as necessary given the many pressures – and sometimes criticisms – that innovation teams face throughout their project. Innovation leaders are therefore often led to act as advocates for their teams vis-à-vis senior management, particularly when questions arise regarding the viability of continuing to fund the project. In that sense, bottom-up innovation leaders have to strike the right balance between championing their teams’ projects with management and maintaining an objective perspective with regard to the project’s viability and the team’s performance.

6. They are good at taking risks and triggering learning

By nature and instinct, bottom-up innovation leaders support people who experiment, try new things and take risks. But as part of the management team, they must again maintain a delicate balance in their project reviews between (1) the need to encourage a dogged, enterprising risk-taking attitude, which implies accepting failures, and (2) a pragmatic and cautious risk management perspective, which implies encouraging a systematic risk prevention and minimization approach.

More importantly, bottom-up innovation leaders encourage their teams to adopt a learning attitude. Accepting failures is okay, but only if it leads to an accumulation of experience and deep learning. Two authors have effectively captured the importance of learning from failures. Oscar Wilde was quoted as saying, “Why do the same mistake twice when there are so many other mistakes to choose from?” And Geoffrey Moore, author of Crossing the Chasm, noted, “If you’re going to fail, at least have the courtesy to do so in a new and interesting manner.” Both authors have captured one of the essential qualities of venture capitalists, i.e. it is not the failures that count, but the way entrepreneurs have learned and grown from their experiences.

Concretely, this means that bottom-up innovation leaders encourage the systematic post-mortem debriefing of projects – failed or successful – and the systematic documentation and sharing of lessons.

7. They behave like shepherds and lead from the back

The late Nelson Mandela had a deep understanding of true leadership. In his memoirs, Long Walk to Freedom,[8] he compared the role of a leader to that of a shepherd thus: “A shepherd stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.” This extraordinarily perceptive description goes against a more traditional view of leadership – the leader in front of the troops, showing the direction and naming the target.

Mandela’s wisdom happens to describe perfectly what bottom-up innovation leadership is all about. Bottom-up innovation leaders are indeed more supportive than directive; they encourage initiatives and experiments, but they ultimately manage to lead their teams towards greener pastures. The late Lou Lehr, the charismatic former CEO of 3M, adopted the same philosophy and description of the role of the executive champion when he said:[9] “We learned to follow the fellows who follow a dream.” Personally, I would have preferred it if he had expressed a slightly more proactive attitude by phrasing it as: “We support the fellows who follow a dream!”

8. They are role models for balance: between creativity and discipline; and between patience and a sense of urgency

As mentioned earlier, bottom-up innovation leaders are totally committed to stimulating, receiving, acknowledging, challenging and supporting new ideas. But, as Andy Boynton and William Fischer put it in their book The Idea Hunter,”[10] they are not just in love with ideas, they make them happen, and this execution focus calls for discipline in implementation. Logitech’s Daniel Borel called for leaders to share “a mix of emotion and realism,” i.e. a focus on creativity, balanced by a strong emphasis on the discipline of execution.

Bottom-up innovation leaders also need to strike a delicate balance between patience and a sense of urgency. Patience is needed in all innovative endeavors, particularly if they involve radical new concepts or processes. Leaders know the need for “patient money” as success always takes longer than planned to materialize. But they nevertheless try to create a sense of urgency in their organization, particularly when it comes to making the team grasp the realities of the market. This is particularly critical with technical projects and engineering teams who might naturally search for internal “perfection” prior to going to market. A CTO I met years ago claimed that he urged his teams to avoid lengthy attempts to reach internal engineering excellence and to focus instead on the search for a “pretty good, fit for purpose” result so as to go to market quickly and learn. This is, arguably, an extremely delicate balance.

In summary, bottom-up innovation leaders encourage and leverage the creativity of their teams, but much more proactively than in a benign laissez-faire mode. They empower their teams, but challenge them to focus on strategic priorities and create real value for both customers and the company. They are deeply involved as advocates, sponsors, facilitators and coaches, but without interfering in the projects. In that sense, they are authentic leaders who make innovation happen through people.

By: Jean-Philippe Deschamps

About the author

Jean-Philippe Deschamps is emeritus Professor of Technology and Innovation Management at IMD in Lausanne (Switzerland). He has more than forty years of international experience in consulting and teaching on innovation. He was the co-author of Product Juggernauts: How Companies Mobilize to Generate a Stream of Market Winners (1995; Harvard Business School Press) and the author of Innovation Leaders: How Senior Executives Stimulate, Steer and Sustain Innovation (2008; Wiley/Jossey-Bass).


  1. Jager, R. D. and Ortiz, R. (1997). In the Company of Giants – Steve Jobs, Only the Best – People, Product, Purpose. McGraw Hill, Chapter 1 page 15.
  2. Fernández-Aráoz, C. (2014). “21st Century Talent Spotting.” Harvard Business Review, June 2014.
  3. Fernández-Aráoz, C. (2014). “21st Century Talent Spotting.” Harvard Business Review, June 2014.
  4. Borel, D. (2001). “Leadership and innovation.” Videotaped interview by J-P. Deschamps, IMD, Lausanne, reproduced with permission.
  5. Catmull, E. (2008). “How Pixar fosters collective creativity.” Harvard Business Review, September 2008.
  6. Hill, L., Brandeau, G., Truelove, E. and Lineback, K. (2014). Collective Genius – The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation. Harvard Business School Press.
  7. Fernández-Aráoz, C. (2014). “21st Century Talent Spotting.” Harvard Business Review, June 2014.
  8. Mandela, N. (1994). Long Walk to Freedom. Little Brown & Co.
  9. Lehr, L. W. (1979). “Stimulating Technological Innovation – The Role of Top Management.” Research Management, November 1979, 23-25.
  10. Boynton, A and Fischer, W. (2011). The Idea Hunter: How to Find the Best Ideas and Make them Happen. Wiley/Jossey-Bass

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