Lead Role

Essential attributes for those leading innovation efforts

by Peter Merrill

Last year in this column, I wrote about the innovation leader’s job from a team perspective.1 Now let’s focus on three personal attributes for innovation leaders: entrepreneurship, being an explorer and the ability to move fast.

There’s a lot of interest in entrepreneurship, which is tied to interest in innovation. Universities offer combined courses in innovation and entrepreneurship. However, the two activities are definitely different. They are complementary, but different. Key facets of any innovator are focus, creativity and teamwork.

Contrary to popular belief, neither Thomas Edison nor Steve Jobs were innovators—they were far more entrepreneurs. Edison did not invent the light bulb, and Jobs did not invent the MP3. They both saw great ideas and built the infrastructures for them to have value.


I have always been an entrepreneur at heart from when I ran my first business—handling a market stand—to becoming a chief executive at a major U.K. corporation. I have been through the school of hard knocks. Today, I find myself to be an entrepreneur enabler—I applaud the work of people like Michael Young, a well-known social entrepreneuer.2 All entrepreneurs are driven, and I have discovered that my desire for independence was my driver as an entrepreneur.

As you probably know, the innovation process breaks into two phases:

  1. A creative phase in which an opportunity is seen and a solution is developed.
  2. An execution phase in which a working solution is developed and commercialized.

In truth, the opportunity seen by the entrepreneur is more often financial. For the innovator, it’s about a new way of doing something.

Creative people are often poor at commercializing their ideas. They are passionate about their idea and often will give up everything for their idea. They often do not manage money well and will sell their souls to the devil to see their idea reach fruition.

To succeed, an innovator at some point must become an entrepreneur or partner with an entrepreneur. Unfortunately, entrepreneurs often become leaders as a result of their financial skills. We have seen this lead to businesses’ demise when the entrepreneur and the innovator have different objectives. An example is the split between Jobs and Steve Wozniak.

Good entrepreneurs are risk takers, but they are also good money managers. They calculate risk and act accordingly. Frequently, they are not committed to the idea. When a business reaches a certain size, they will sell it for financial gain.

The entrepreneur is a self-promoter. This is a necessary attribute for an entrepreneur, but not the only one. This must be tempered with the recognition and collaboration with colleagues.

I have a strong aversion to the concept of the "Dragon’s Den" or "Shark Tank" reality TV shows, which pit people with good, new ideas, but limited negotiating experience against people with extensive negotiation experience. Good for TV, but bad for the country.

What is for the greater good of the country is what matters. We know strong collaboration is fundamental to innovative success. Robbing the poor to pay the rich is not a business ethic we should promote. I am not comfortable with this. Shameless theft should not be accepted nor applauded.

No individual will have all the attributes to be both an entrepreneur and an innovator. This is why I come back to the importance of collaboration between those who are primarily innovators and those who are primarily entrepreneurs.

Being an explorer

Clearly, entrepreneurial ability is a vital attribute, and that means a willingness to take risks. This leads to the second attribute of the innovator, which is also risk based: the willingness to explore and take a team into the unknown. This means building trust in the team. It does not mean having a vision.

At the start of my project to write ISO 10018 Quality management—Guidelines on people involvement and competence, one of the team members asked me what my vision would be for the finished standard. I answered that I had no idea and that the finished standard would depend on the team, not me.

I had a clear objective, but that is different. That objective was that I was tasked by the International Organization of Standardization with developing a standard that would enable organizations to involve their people more closely in the operation of a quality management system based on ISO 9001. Over time, the product evolved, and the final product was designed to meet the needs of the end user. A clear objective or challenge is a critical requirement before you and your team start exploring.

Mission and process

Amazon set the challenge of delivering its products more rapidly—hence its pursuit of using drones for delivery. In the 1960s, John F. Kennedy set the national challenge of sending a man to the moon and safely returning him to Earth before the end of the decade.

Having agreed on the challenge, a leader must be close to the team not only to ensure all members are aligned with the challenge, but also to draw on ideas as the journey unfolds.

The leader’s job becomes more complex: staying connected to the end goal, but also staying connected to the parent organization. This means having a clear process that the team understands and is used regularly as a check and balance for the mission.

I have described the innovation process previously in simple terms to help develop understanding. The reality, of course, is more complex. Figure 1 emphasizes the iterative component of the innovation process.

Figure 1

The first step in the process is to find the opportunity or unmet customer need. The second step is to find conceptual solutions. In the real world, we do not settle on and select our own preferred solution. We test the concepts with the customer. For a manufactured product, for example, 3-D printing has become a huge asset here.

The internal looping in Figure 1 shows how we must constantly test. A critical job for any leader is to ensure this happens. The leader must stay close to the team and close to the customer. You should expect to have a clear identification of customers’ needs—not the solution—in the first couple of months of the project.

The concepts you place in front of customers are to stimulate their thinking and demonstrate what’s possible. In a past life, I worked in the world of fashion. A fashion designer will create a collection, which is exactly that: They collect their ideas, and among the ideas will be radical new ideas they are testing with their potential customer. This is especially true with couture. This way you test and learn through a continuous "what if" process to draw out alternatives. It is especially important for the leader to draw in unhappy customers at this early stage of the process.

As ideas develop, the leader must challenge the team. The advantage a leader has is a degree of objectivity, and this enables the leader to challenge assumptions. At the second stage of conceptual solutions or ideation, there will be a lot of assumptions. The leader must ensure the ideas are collected and challenged. Every assumption must be tested to find what you don’t know and what other choices you have.

This, again, must engage the customer and will have the advantage of strengthening the customer relationship.

As assumptions are tested, the associated risk will be evaluated. This is where the leader must connect back to the parent organization and ensure the leadership of the parent fully understands what’s happening. The leader may even have the job of ensuring the organization understands the innovation process. This may well be a half-day or one-day in-depth session, even though business leaders will say they can get it in 40 minutes. As the solution evolves, one more issue the leader must address is the business model for delivering the solution.

Moving fast

Throughout all of this activity, speed matters. This is the third essential attribute of the innovation leaders. They have to ensure the business leaders and team members understand the need for speed. Somewhere, someone will have seen the same customer need you have found and will probably be working on the same solution. See Figure 2.

Figure 2

Experience shows that 75% of innovation or start-up projects fail to meet objectives. This is mainly the result of having a grand, inflexible plan at the start and failing to get customer feedback. Fail early and be ready to change or, using a fashionable business term, learn to pivot.


  1. Peter Merrill, "Team Sports," Quality Progress, May 2014, pp. 44-46.
  2. Bill Bolton and John Thompson, Entrepreneurs: Talent, Temperament, Technique, Routledge, 2000.

Peter Merrill is president of Quest Management Systems, an innovation consultancy based in Burlington, Ontario. Merrill is the author of several ASQ Quality Press books, including Do It Right the Second Time, second edition (2009), and Innovation Generation (2008). He is a member of ASQ and chair of the ASQ Innovation Division.

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