Five Things Leaders Need to Know about Innovation


Leaders commonly speak the word innovation. It conveys a sense of excitement and newness that motivates people.

But let’s be honest...

Many times leaders use the word as filler in a speech or press release: a buzzword that occasionally engenders cynicism.

The 5ive Things

Innovation is important, and it deserves a spot in the leader’s toolbox.  Here are five things that leaders need to know about innovation:


Innovation is not the same thing as invention or as creativity

Innovation is best defined as “an idea, practice or object that is perceived as new by an individual or organization.”  So an innovation does not need to be new to the world, just new to a person. There are all kinds of great ideas and technologies already in existence. Innovators are people who search for outside of the familiar new ideas, and then bring the ideas into the existing culture.

Thus, an important principle of innovation is: The future is already here, it is just distributed unevenly

For example, Henry Ford did not invent the automobile nor did he invent mass production. Ford revolutionized the auto industry by combining existing technologies from meatpacking experts (the assembly line approach), electric motors, continuous flow, and machine tools. Every technology Ford needed was there, it was his ability to find and combine the elements that made him a world-changing innovator.

Ford’s genius was that he had a vision and the courage to look outside of his own industry for the best people and best ideas.


Innovations Do Not Sell Themselves

Scurvy was a killer of many ancient sailors on long voyages. In 1601, a doctor in the British Navy found that citrus juice would prevent the disease. However, it wasn’t until nearly 200 years later – with many unnecessary deaths – that the British Navy to made its use a policy. Whether it is a new technological gadget, or a quality improvement program, there is no assurance that people will adopt an innovation.

Leaders have an important role in developing the awareness of the innovation, positive attitude toward the innovation, and commitment to adopt the innovation.

This leads to an important implication for leadership…


Innovation Involves Choices and Decisions

People evaluate an innovation with five filters, which I call the TACOS criteria:

TTrialability:  Can I try it out before committing? If I don’t like it, can I abandon the innovation?

A – Advantage:  Is this innovation better for me? Does it have greater relative advantage over what I am doing now or the alternatives?

C – Compatibility: Is this compatible with my values? Does it match with the values of the organization?

O– Observability
: Can I physically see and experience it? Is it transparent to those involved?

S Simplicity: Is it simple enough that I can understand its features, function, and benefits?


It is a Gross Exaggeration to Declare that People “Resist Change”

I have heard it said and written hundreds of times that people resist change, but that far overstates the reality.  It is more accurate to say that:

People adopt innovations at different rates, with laggards the last to adopt the innovation.

Innovation Curve Cross Chasm

The nearby graphic shows the distribution of a population of people into five categories of people, based on when they adopt.

  • Innovators are the smallest group. They are venturesome individuals who bring new ideas into the system. Henry Ford would be considered an innovator because he was successful at combining existing technologies found in other industries.
  • Early adopters are opinion leaders that have an important function of decreasing uncertainty for others by sharing their positive experiences with the innovation.
  • Early majority comprises people who consider the value of the innovation carefully – they deliberate – before committing.  They rely on information provided by the early adopters.
  • Late majority are people who are skeptical and need to have most of the uncertainty removed before they adopt the innovation.
  • Laggards may never adopt the innovation because,

The innovation is inconsistent with their closely-held values.


Leaders Help People Cross the Chasm

Notice “the chasm” on the graphic, where the innovation has penetrated 16% of population of potential users.  That’s less than 1 in 5! The chasm turns out to be particularly difficult to cross, and this is a place where championing behaviors are needed:

  • Influencing tactics such as presentations, use of status and celebrities, bargaining, and appeals to higher authority.
  • Relationship building tactics such as befriending others and building professional networks
  • Business case development, to show the economic benefits of making the change
  • Visioning to help people understand the anticipated future.

When the innovation “crosses the chasm” it gains the critical mass where the majorities adopt it.

Do you agree with these principles of innovation? How have you used them on your strategic initiatives? I would love to hear your thoughts!

Greg Githens
helps organizations turn vision into results

He does this through coaching, seminars, speaking, and consulting
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1 Comment

  1. Leadership | Education for the 21st Century on May 4, 2011 at 12:19 pm

    […] Five Things Leaders Need to Know about Innovation ( […]