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How can leadership drive innovation?

Written by Gary Walpole / Thursday 17th November 2016


Innovation is vital for our national prosperity due to its critical role in productivity and job creation

That is the message that the UK Commission for Employment and Skills[1] wants businesses and their advisors to work on. But this is not the only message. It comes hot on the heels of another report (this time by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills[2])  that says that management practices are the reason for differences in productivity in firms in the UK. 

So which is it?  The answer is, of course, both.

Innovation is a function of a healthy firm, and healthy firms weather the slings and arrows of outrageous innovation by being well managed.  But before any of that can happen, they must take the first step and decide to innovate. This only happens because of the vision and engagement that comes with good leadership. 

In answer to this, we developed a program {the SIM Wales Programme} that aimed to develop business leaders’ leadership and change knowledge and skills before introducing innovation methodologies, tools or models. We aimed to develop leaders’ ability to critically reflect in the workplace as well as their innovation processes and practices. The programme also included good practice visits to highly innovative businesses and peer to peer (critical friend) exchange visits.

By doing this, we developed leaders’ ability to create an innovation culture through engaging in employees in organizational challenges and in the process intellectually stimulating staff. 

Engage staff with the business challenges, people like helping solve problems:

 “We now hold a Friday meeting with them where I talk about general things that are going on around the company and then they can talk to me and ask me questions and we can generally try and improve things together.” 

Another delegate advised: “Engaging staff differently. Allowing people on the shop floor to contribute ideas. This has led to many small changes and increased quality.”

We developed leaders’ confidence of introducing change by developing their knowledge of innovation tools. 

“We’ve benefitted from various forms of management tools.  We hadn’t really realised the full power of those tools, so we’re looking at using them more efficiently.

We developed leaders’ awareness of the challenge that change presents to people that have established processes and practices. 

“I learned about other people’s behaviour…. Previously I thought that change was something you just got on with. I learned that for other people change is not good.  It has helped me to understand employee behaviour.” 

We aimed to test the suggestion within the literature around leadership of innovation, that the development of leaders and managers ‘new leadership’ knowledge and skills enhances their ability to implement innovation.  In short, it works.

Our analysis suggests that the programme had an impact on innovation practice, which appears to have been facilitated by the teaching of ‘new leadership’ knowledge and skills.

While the SIM Wales programme has now ended, Swansea University also offers the ION leadership programme, designed for the growth orientated business, next starting in December 2016.

[1] UKCES UK Commission for Employment and Skills (2014). The Future of Work: Jobs and Skills in 2030 Evidence Report 84.

[2] BIS 2014  Department for Business Innovation & Skills (2014). "Our Plan for Growth: Science and Innovation." Evidence Paper.




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