TEI 228: How to lead innovation, part 2 – with Mike Mitchell, PhD


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Use trust, purpose, and partnership to achieve change in any organization.

Product Manager Interview - Mike MitchellHow should leaders actually lead innovation? This is a topic we explored back in episode 149 with Dr. Mike Mitchell, teacher and researcher for the Center for Creative Leadership. Then he was conducting research on the topic and discovering what organizational leaders need to do differently when they are involved with innovation projects. Now he has finished his research and has published a book with the findings, titled Supporting Innovators: Trust, Purpose, Partnership.

The subtitles are the three areas where leaders need to approach innovation differently than they are used to, and they are also the three topics we discuss:

  • Trust
  • Purpose
  • Partnership

Summary of some concepts discussed for product managers

[2:17] Has anything changed about the importance of innovation to organization leaders?

Innovation is still very important. Our research shows that 94 percent of executives say research is important, but only 14 percent say their organizations are good at it. We’re working on figuring out how to fix that gap. We also asked whether leading innovation is different than leading an ongoing function. 80 percent said yes because there is greater risk and greater ambiguity. You’re creating something new to the organization, and there’s nowhere to hide if you make a mistake. The focus of the new book is how to support people in those situations.

[5:34] Why is trust important to leading innovators?

Competency trust means that leaders trust that innovators have the competency to get their work done. The innovator is walking a high wire in a high risk, high ambiguity situation. They need confidence that they can continue to walk the high wire in order to continue innovating. We use an example of this in the book where a leader instilled confidence in a product manager to work through a snag in a project about packaging design. He eventually reached a solution that got the project back on track and the packaging ended up winning an award.

[15:10] What role does purpose play in innovation leadership?

Innovation takes a long time and purpose can get lost over time as snags come up along the way. Leaders can help make sure innovators do not lose sight of that purpose, no matter what happens in the day-to-day. It can tie into the organization’s overall mission and the leader should be trying to make those connections and helping employees see how the project they’re working on fits into the overall mission.

[20:22] How can leaders partner with their innovators?

Partnership is the most difficult element for leaders to get their heads around. It means rolling up your sleeves and doing whatever the innovator needs to do. It could be anything from brainstorming to freeing up resources. It involves the leader coming down off of their pedestal and let go of ego. The person reporting to them is now telling them what to do in some sense. There’s also a concern that if the leader is an equal, trust will be broken. In practice, it looks like a boss being a servant leader.

[25:20] Why is innovation lacking in the C-Suite?

Harvard Business Review found that many boards have a lack of understanding about innovation. This trickles down to executives and senior leadership. The lack of innovation experience makes it difficult for these leaders to give innovators the support they need. We found that trust, purpose, and partnership were just as important at the C-Suite level as they were at the management level. If those three elements are not in place at the highest level, it trickles down to the rest of the organization.

Useful links:

Innovation Quote

“When we are creating, we are at our most human. When we are at our most human we are at our most vulnerable.” – Mike Mitchell


Thank you for being an Everyday Innovator and learning with me from the successes and failures of product innovators, managers, and developers. If you enjoyed the discussion, help out a fellow product manager by sharing it on your favorite social network.

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