Can Leaders Be Too Innovative?
04.23.18   by Erin Burns

In recent articles, I have discussed seven personality traits that differentiate executive leaders from other leaders and shared insights on the first three: Objectivity in the WorkplaceHaving a Positive Outlook, and Being Engaged. This article focuses on the fourth trait, being innovative

Why does being innovative matter?

Among the executive’s critical roles, looking ahead and laying the groundwork today for what will be needed in three or eight years (or even twenty years in some industries) is one of the most important. By the time you realize your organization is not keeping up, it is usually too late to catch up. Consider Kodak and Borders in the U.S., Maplin and HMV in the U.K., Toshiba and Sharp in Japan.  

A colleague recently asked for my advice; he was working with an executive team that was concerned their organization was not keeping up with changes in the external environment.  I suggested that, in addition to gathering data to identify potential areas for experimentation or innovation, they conduct a psychometric evaluation of the executive team members.  

Companies evolve and continue to be relevant and competitive when they have leaders who see beyond the status quo, identify the potential impacts of trends, generate options for adapting to or taking advantage of change, and then begin to test options and build new capabilities.  Assessing the tendencies of the executive team towards innovation would likely provide valuable information about whether this was a people or an organization/process issue—or both.  

An executive team that is innovative will drive the company to design and successfully initiate necessary change with sufficient lead-time to overcome organizational inertia. In a competitive world, organizations that focus on improved long-term performance, agility, and competitive advantage are better prepared to evolve and confront what lies ahead. 

What happens if a leader is not innovative enough?

In many cases, characteristics that distinguish successful mid-level leaders have the potential to become a barrier to their effectiveness. These leaders tend to be more practical than theoretical, excel in executing clear-cut objectives, and know and stay inside the rules often make excellent mid-level managers.  In order to maximize these individuals’ effectiveness, these traits should be moderated to better suit the different demands of executive leadership. Due to these characteristics, executive leaders tend to fix current problems using methods that have previously proven successful —despite facing situations that are often fundamentally different and should not be handled with known or established procedures and precedent.  These traits can also lead to discomfort with the unknown and hesitation to move ahead when there is not clarity, which is not feasible in a changing world, ultimately paralyzing the organization.  

People and organizations have a strong bias towards stasis.  Organizations without executive leaders who strongly drive innovation and change tend to stagnate; as a result, nimble competitors quickly drive them out of business.  

Can a leader be too innovative?

Highly innovative leaders present different, but equally significant risks in executive leadership.  They tend to under-value the status quo, tire of repetitive tasks quickly, and always push to do new things in a new way. Organizations—and the majority of the people in them—depend on an orderly, predictable environment. Without prudence, executives can discard processes and systems that have current or future value, which should be continued.  Competence is managing this process to have debate and then close on path; does org have the resources to debate complex issues of future direction openly, freely, and competently?

Leaders who are too innovative may introduce more changes than the organization can absorb, causing the important work of the organization to take the back burner.  Also, they may introduce new directions before they have been carefully thought through—wasting precious resources on initiatives that later get pulled back or fail.

There is a thin line between being just innovative enough to retain a competitive advantage and being so innovative that a market does not exist for your product (for example, when Netflix drove customers to streaming before the market was ready). Business success depends a great deal on an organization’s ability to continuously straddle this line. 

In sum, leaders must balance the competing needs of collecting maximum profit from an existing product or service line with exploring and developing new products for the future--usually in a separate part of the organization.  Executives must be able to toggle between both worlds, balancing the allocation of resources to optimize stakeholder results. To be too focused on the new, nonconforming, and unconventional as a leader carries different but equally problematic risk as being a leader who is closed to new ideas, overly conforming and highly conventional.  

I invite you to learn about the exciting ways RBL helps our clients foster and develop executive leadership skills.