Creative Leaders and Innovation Managers

Creative Leaders and Innovation Managers: Same same but different

Do creative leaders and innovation managers perform the same innovation role? A few months ago, I had an interesting conversation related to this question with the global head of idea and innovation management of a tech multinational. When we talked about the responsibilities related to his role, my counterpart revealed to my surprise that he sometimes has to key in ideas into his organization’s idea management system. Now know that this particular innovation executive is a strategic big picture thinker who is ideally suited for creatively driving major innovation initiatives across his organization. Sweating the small stuff is a waste of his time and talent, if you ask me.

Many organizations seem to interpret the role of the executive spearheading corporate innovation function as a “Mr. Know-it-all-do-it-all”. I believe that’s wrong, and how I believe we must make a distinction between the role of a creative leader and that of an innovation manager. Let me elaborate by discussing the responsibilities of each role and, with the help of my innovation-people profiling method TIPS, make a case for why these roles suit fundamentally different personality types.

Creative leaders: driving innovation from the front

Creative leaders run the “innovation front-office” of their organization:

  • They set or influence the innovation agenda by identifying new trends and technologies to focus on.
  • They spearhead or participate in innovation initiatives of business units or dedicated innovation teams, such as new product development or product design teams.
  • They participate in innovation events and conferences to promote innovation within and outside of the organization.

Creative leaders inspire and drive innovation teams towards excellence to bring truly novel, original and meaningful ideas to life in the form of new products, new services, new solutions or new customer experiences. They look for new business models, strategic partnerships, networks and channel solutions to multiply revenue from innovation. Finally, they drive campaign, packaging and branding initiatives that magnify the innovation in the eyes of customers.

Creative leaders ought to be at the very top of the executive structure, whether as CEO or chief innovation officer (CIO). This allows them to drive or at least influence the top management agenda, and to intervene and remove any internal barriers preventing innovation. Famous CEOs who exemplify the role of a creative leader are Thomas Edison, Walt Disney, Steve Jobs (Apple), Jeff Bezos (Amazon) or Jeffrey Immelt (General Electrics), among others.

Innovation managers:driving innovation from the back

Innovation managers run the “innovation back-office” of their organization. They take care of certain internal responsibilities related to innovation, such as:

  • organizing and administering the formal innovation management system (how innovation is organized and formalized within the organization);
  • managing the corporate innovation pipeline (top ideas earmarked for activation);
  • administering and maintaining an online idea submission and evaluation system;
  • organizing and coordinating innovation events and project initiatives;
  • developing and fine-tuning an innovation measurement system; and
  • measuring and controlling innovation performance and efficiency.

The innovation manager heads a dedicated administrative innovation team that supports and directly reports to the creative leader. A good example representing the systematic, reliable mindset of an innovation manager is Tim Cook, who took care of Apple’s “back office” to support Steve Jobs before rising to CEO when the latter passed away.

Why does the innovation function benefit from two separate lead roles?

Thinkergy’s Innovation Profiling System TIPS (Theories, Ideas, People, Systems) helps us to understand why it is beneficial to separate the two roles of a creative leader and an innovation manager: They draw upon diametrically opposite base energies, and should be staffed by different profiles:

  • Creative leaders are all about the TIPS base “Ideas”. Ideas people innately drive change, innovation and progress. They are strategic visionaries who enjoy focusing on boosting corporate performance, profitability and margins through innovations. TIPS profiles that naturally cater to this energy —and thus qualify to be a creative leader or be developed into a future one— are Ideators, Conceptualizers, Promoters and Imaginative Experimenters.
  • In contrast, innovation managers draw on the TIPS base “Systems”. Systems people enjoy managing, organizing, directing, coordinating and controlling internal activities. They take pleasure in setting-up and administering an innovation management system, including defining measures that allow them to check-on innovation performance and efficiency (How to increase our innovation outputs? How to more efficiently employ internal and external resources for innovation?). TIPS profiles that innately operate on Systems energy —and thus make dependable innovation managers— are Systematizers, Organizers, Technocrats, and Systematic Experimenters.

But what if you insisted on keeping the two roles together? One compromise would be to staff the role of a “creative innovation manager” with a balanced Experimenter or an All-Rounder, both of whom can bridge the divide between the two polar energies “Ideas” and “Systems”. But, as with most compromises, you end up with a suboptimal result, because one person will be less effective than a real S-based innovation manager supporting a real I-based creative leader.

Conclusion: Not either or, but both 

Both creative leaders and innovation managers care for driving innovation in an organization. But they do it by different means and by focusing on different ends. Both roles support and complement each other by letting each person play to their strengths while compensating for the weaknesses of each others’ shadow-side. So, separate the two functions of the creative leader and the innovation manager of your organization. And consider using TIPS to find out how to out the right person in each role.

Contact us if you want to learn more about how TIPS may help you getting the people side of innovation right in your organization — or if you’re curious to find out what’s your TIPS innovator profile. Our TIPS online personality test is going live soon.

© Dr. Detlef Reis 2016. This article was published in parallel in the Bangkok Post under the same title on 4 August 2016.