There are different approaches to leadership and cultures for innovation. 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

Leadership and Cultures for Innovation

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

three four-leaf clovers, representing the role that luck plays in Leadership and Cultures for Innovation
Luck often plays a role in innovation (perhaps think of penicillin…).

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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, leaders in this area should 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. They should take their barriers to innovation with them.

A word cloud showing Leadership and Cultures for Innovation when looking for primary innovation

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.

A Podcast

You can learn more about this side of creativity and innovation in the first of three special podcasts on innovation. This episode focuses on the role of failure and psychological safety on innovation.

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. 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. These people can identify improvements at a detailed level.

A word cloud showing Leadership and Cultures for Innovation when looking for incremental innovation

From a leadership perspective it’s important to share and reinforce your goals and vision around incremental innovation. It’s also good to create common language around it to help your individuals communicate. And don’t forget 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.

Learning More

It’s worth thinking about the difference between initial and incremental innovation. It might also be worth reading more about the Innovator’s Dilemma. We also like the concept of the Medici Effect, which considers the benefits of diversity on innovation.

We’ve also tried to look at what disruption in action looks like. To be honest, we don’t like the way the phrase is used as something to aspire towards.

To learn more about how people might respond to changes when you bring in new leadership approaches or cultures, you might enjoy our post on the change curve. Or our post on the Bridges model.

You might also enjoy the three special podcasts we did on creativity and innovation with Roni Reiter-Palmon. She’s the director of innovation at the University of Nebraska’s Center for Collaboration Science. You can listen to the second episode below. It’s on the role of diversity and conflict in creativity and innovation:

The World of Work Project View

There isn’t much to add to this post. It’s just worth saying 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.

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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.

We’re a small organization who know we make mistakes and want to improve them. Please contact us with any feedback you have on this post. We’ll usually reply within 72 hours.