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Leading Innovation with your Change Management Hat

Updated: Jan 23, 2023

In much of the philosophical discourse about what innovation is and is not, many overlook an obvious fact:  that all innovation involves change.  Of course, there are degrees of change depending on the type of innovation, but the fact remains the same.  Therefore, we can safely say the pursuit of innovation requires a constant commitment to embracing and managing change.

In my opinion, this insight is often overlooked when companies set out on their innovation journey.  Instead, outside experts are brought in to help them figure out how to “do it.”  The result is a preliminary focus on building infrastructure and processes with too little consideration of the impact everything will have on their culture.  Once the system is built, managers are put in place to run it all with the expectation that, like other corporate processes, when followed it will churn out a bunch of successful new products.

Unfortunately, it’s not so simple.  The spirit of innovation is fueled by the relentless pursuit of better ways.  An innovation function is not easily grafted onto the existing business where it is expected to follow the same rules of the status quo.  Corporate innovation teams have to feel safe about challenging paradigms and taking shots at sacred cows and such instigative behavior often creates tension and backlash.  Leadership is required.

If all innovation involves change, then the innovation agenda must be carefully planned and orchestrated by senior management before it’s unleashed across the organization.  Furthermore, like any change management initiative, senior leaders need to be engaged throughout in order to keep the organization focused on vision, to model new behaviors that are required to positively shift culture, and to convince employees that changing for the future is better than the status quo.

I am an admirer of John Kotter‘s Eight Step Process for Leading Change and believe it is an effective model to use as a framework for both planning and optimizing the innovation function within an organization.  The reason why I like this model in this context is because it is grounded in key creative leadership skills:  communication, connecting and curiosity.  In addition, it stresses the importance of leadership and strategic thinking PRIOR to building infrastructure and processes.  If you’re not familiar with Kotter’s model, you can get an overview and learn more on this website.

For each of the eight steps below, I provide my own insight as to why each is important for effective innovation leadership and performance.

1.  Establishing a Sense of Urgency:  In Kotter’s model, this first step is about examination and identifying current or potential problems/opportunities that require strategic thinking and novel solutions.  Many companies make the mistake of creating urgency and excitement just about their decision to make innovation a key strategic focus area — “we must innovate or die!” goes the common refrain.  Instead, leaders should first start by creating urgency around the key business issues that require superior ideas in order to secure future business revenue.  The ultimate aim of this first step, therefore, is to begin discussing and honing in on the objectives of the innovation agenda.

2.  Forming a Powerful Guiding Coalition:  This step is more than just identifying the innovation team tasked with performing the day-to-day work.  Forming the core innovation coalition includes the most senior and most junior employees who represent the right people you need on the bus to not only lead the changes, but to demonstrate and model the behaviors you want to see embedded in your culture moving forward.  This coalition must have enough power to lead and challenge the status quo, otherwise they’ll run into a cultural brick wall.  Lastly, make sure you have a balanced mix of leaders and managers involved.  The manager mindset has the tendency to favor order and structure which can result in sameness.  Strong creative leaders, on the other hand, can help inspire people and pull them toward the future.

3.  Creating a Vision:  In a perfect world, a company already has a vision in place that directs and informs the innovation agenda.  Unfortunately, this is not the case for a vast amount of businesses.  Therefore, consider the opportunity to reframe, revise or update your vision so that it clearly paints a picture of what you want to be in the future.  If you do this effectively, your organization will have clarity about what they need to build.  In addition, you’ll have a stronger platform from which to develop specific innovation strategies that serve to focus the attention of your idea creators.

4.  Communicating the Vision:  The guiding coalition must constantly champion and communicate the vision using every vehicle possible.  The goal is to keep the vision top-of-mind so that everyone remains energized and develops a strong sense of belief.  Belief is an incredibly powerful ally that fuels engagement.  When employees believe, their job becomes a calling which leads to self-leadership, organic creative thinking and proactive problem solving.  Belief in a vision can also sustain morale during difficult and challenging times.  Repeated communication of vision ultimately demonstrates that the senior team supports innovation and change, is highly engaged and ‘walking-the-talk.’

5.  Empowering Others to Act on the Vision:  This step is about being inclusive.  In many ways, innovation is a numbers game and the more eyes, ears and brains you have thinking about problems and opportunities, the more likely someone will connect the dots and have an “aha” moment.  In addition, empowering for inclusiveness involves removing barriers and obstacles that interfere with engagement and participation.  Be wary of creating too much process for if it’s a hassle to share and contribute ideas some may opt-out (remember, your employees already have full plates!).

6.  Planning for and Creating Short-Term Wins:  Many corporate innovators fall into the trap of being drawn toward the excitement of radical and/or disruptive ideas.  In doing so, they risk discounting the value and potential of incremental innovation.  While every company should pursue a range of audacious ideas, they must also build a portfolio that balances risk with incremental innovation opportunities.  Since the latter are generally more known and easier qualified, you increase your odds of achieving short-term successes that can contribute to your organizational storytelling.  These short-term wins help the company to believe in itself and to garner increased commitment of the vision.

7.  Consolidating Improvements and Producing Still More Change:  With success comes credibility which increases your ability to influence and to change the business systems, structures or processes that interfere with innovation and the vision.  This can be the opportune time to challenge the sacred cows that represent the old way of doing work (assuming such things are non-productive or misaligned with the vision).  In addition, as new products commercialize, there are often new manufacturing capabilities and systems put in place that should be highlighted and explained as they can serve to enable new ideas and platforms.

8.  Institutionalizing New Approaches:  Kotter summarizes this last step as “articulating the connections between the new behaviors and corporate success.”  In other words, this is all about leveraging performance to positively shift the culture.  By translating the inspirational stories from the work of innovation — namely HOW the work was done — into leadership development lessons you ensure key behaviors and values will become embedded in the culture moving forward.  As Kotter warns, “Until new behaviors are rooted in social norms and shared values, they are subject to degradation as soon as the pressure for change is removed.”

Conclusion:   Innovation is not simple or predictable.  It’s messy.  If we implement innovation process thinking it will keep the complexity and chaos away, we better think again.  Companies successful at innovation have strong creative leaders who are able to inspire and motivate through effective visioning and who are able to stay positive during an idea’s tumultuous journey toward commercialization.  The world of change management theory provides relevant frameworks to consider when determining how to best create and lead the innovation agenda.  Perhaps the familiarity of such theories will invite more senior level executives to take a holistic approach and increase their engagement with the planning and execution of innovation.  When CEOs execute a change management program, they’re all over it — you rarely see them set it all up, sit back and wait for it to happen.  Why should innovation be any different?


Kotter, J. (1995). Harvard Business Review on Leading Through Change. Harvard Business School Press, 3-18.

Kotter, J., & Cohen, D. (2002). The Heart of Change (1st Edition ed.). Boston: Harvard Business Review Press.

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