The World of Work Project

Innovation: Cultures and Leadership

Primary and incremental innovation are different things, and are best fostered by different cultures and different styles of leadership.

Summary by The World of Work Project

Innovation Cultures and Leadership

Primary and incremental innovation are very different things. Primary innovation relates to the creation of an entirely new product or idea, and incremental innovation relates to the improvement of an existing product or idea.

Not only are these two types of innovation different, they come about in very different ways too. Often, different people with different skills are required for each of them. They also require different working cultures and approaches to leadership. We touch on a few points to keep in mind below. That said, we also think that primary innovation often requires a bit of luck as well…

Luck often plays a role in innovation (perhaps think of penicillin…).

Leadership and culture for Primary Innovation

Primary innovation is a slippery thing. It requires inspiration, creativity, freedom of thought and space to innovate and in which to try new things.

Lots of innovative ideas that lead to primary innovations were actually created for entirely different purposes than those which they ended up being used for. Lots of innovative ideas also evolve in environments where the pursuit of ideas and knowledge for the pure science benefits of those discoveries, as opposed to for commercial gains, is the primary goal.

From a cultural perspective, primary innovation can be helped by cultures in which fear is removed, experimenting is encouraged, ideas are pursued for their own sake, everyone is included, there are high levels of psychological safety, risks and mistakes are tolerated (provided they are learned from), individuals are highly empowered and autonomous, the structure doesn’t feel overly-hierarchical, curiosity is celebrated and opportunities for cross-disciplinary working are present. Of course, primary innovation occurs in all kinds of environments, but these factors are worth considering.

From a leadership perspective, the primary role of leaders in this area should be to help create the environments that support primary innovation. This may be counter intuitive, but most leaders lead best for primary innovation by trying to get out of the way of their innovators, and to take their barriers with them.

Leaders should remove barriers, remove fear, create inclusive environments, stimulate their teams with new ideas and thinkers, role-model and celebrate curiosity, be a connector helping their teams link ideas, hire for innovation, support “side-projects” and the interests of their workers, make sure the basics are done and focus on turning ideas into products.

The US Military’s DARPA program contributes a lot towards primary innovation, including most of the technology for the first generation iPhone.

Leadership and cultures for Incremental Innovation

Incremental innovation is very different to primary innovation. It’s effortful. It’s often testing based. It can be meticulous. Incremental innovation often requires many small and repeated steps with small improvements at each step. This process can feel very different to that of primary innovation. It’s often detailed and repetitive, and it may benefit from a different culture and style of leadership and organizational structure than primary innovation.

A culture that supports incremental innovation focuses on and celebrates quality, consistency and attention to detail. To be effective, ideas for marginal improvements must be celebrated and reinforced, and individuals at all levels must have the confidence to share their ideas for improvements.

These new ideas should be tried and experimentation should be encouraged, but it’s essential that activities are measured so that true gains can be identified and improved processes captured and rolled-out more widely. Quite often these cultures benefit from individuals with very deep knowledge in their specific fields who can identify improvements at a detailed level.

From a leadership perspective it’s important to share and reinforce your goals and vision around incremental innovation, to create common language around it to help your individuals communicate and to celebrate and reward when incremental innovation is achieved.

It’s also hugely important to give people the time and space to come up with new solutions and permission to test them. If people are too busy delivering existing processes and products, they will never improve them. Similarly, it’s essential that leaders allow people to fail in their efforts to improve. If the penalties for failure are high, no one will ever try to make things better. Leaders should also value standard processes and routines, pay attention to detail and ensure that they hire for continuous innovation.

The World of Work Project View

There isn’t much to add to this post, apart from to say that innovation might not be the exciting thing that everyone thinks it is. A lot of it is hard work, luck and the pursuit of passion projects. And people looking to commercialize existing things. It might not be for everyone either.

It’s still clearly a great thing though.

Sources and further reading

Where possible we always recommend that people read up on the original sources of information and ideas.

The contents of this post have been based on our experience in organizations, conversations with various individuals involved in innovation and research from various locations on the internet. No specific sources were used to refer you back to.


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