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Leaders on and off the innovation track

Our recent study on leadership in service firms  showed that executives’ engagement with innovation lapsed repeatedly. Despite innovation being part of corporate strategy, agreed by managers at all levels, there was no continuity since leaders were distracted from innovation by other tasks. 

It is widely acknowledged that leaders have multiple roles to play in the innovation process, including motivating employees, giving recognition and providing resources for innovation efforts. And by being role models. Studies indicate that executives nowadays spend more time on fewer prioritized tasks than in the past, yet research tells us little about the stamina of leaders when it comes to innovation

Leaders model innovative behavior by generating and exploring opportunities themselves, and by championing the efforts put into innovation by others. To support innovation, leaders need to be consistently change-oriented. Leaders seem to be more involved in service innovation than in other types of innovation, and yet even there we found in our study that distractions often brought their involvement to an early end.

We found that both employees and leaders brought forward plenty of new ideas. Employees turned to their superiors for support, but often this was not forthcoming, which caused a lot of frustration. When trying to take their ideas forward by going around their immediate superiors, employees were thwarted by difficulties in understanding the organizational innovation structure. Apparently strategic decisions by top management to encourage innovation were not being supported by leaders’ behaviour.

Of even greater concern was how few new opportunities were generated and taken forward by leaders themselves. When asked why they had left the innovation track, the leaders responded that other issues took over, such as acquisitions and new partner contracts.

Clearly it is important that leaders are engaged in realizing innovation so that companies remain competitive, yet change-oriented leadership seems to be hampered by competition from other issues. Leaders in our study often departed from the innovation track and some reported having no time for it all. This is a challenge for any company that would like to stay in business.

Read more about the study here: http://www.vinnova.se/sv/Aktuellt--publicerat/Kalendarium/2014/140402-Reservices/

Ingela Sölvell is a researcher at Centre for Advanced Studies in Leaderhip. Her work focuses on leadership and innovation in high-tech companies. 


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