top of page

LEAD: Unleashing Human Potential in the Innovation Era

Innovation Universe derives its meaning from the definition of a universe: all time, space and its contents. If you look at the observable universe, there are galaxies, asteroids, planets, light sources and even space junk. It’s overwhelming without a way to comprehend all the elements and their connections. NASA created the Cosmicopia that contains the abundance of information about the universe organized into palatable categories to be studied, explored and discussed. Innovation Universe is the innovation cosmicopia providing a unifying, practical framework for company leaders to comprehend the enormity of the innovation space.

  • GENERATE is the sun in the Innovation Universe. It represents the art and science involved in creating innovations, from concept to commercialization. GENERATE is the center of the Innovation Universe. The planets that orbit GENERATE are FRAME, EMBED, and LEAD.

  • FRAME involves setting the stage in your strategic architecture so that innovation fulfills strategic intent.

  • EMBED is the transformation of your company that allows innovation to thrive. EMBED is tricky; it has a cloaking device that makes it invisible to all but those who are explicitly looking for it.

  • LEAD is made-up of people who use new leadership skills to unleash human potential for the innovation economy.

Each of these planetary bodies is wide-ranging enough to hold the critical know-how and common elements that make up the interconnected system required to renovate your company for the innovation age. In this post, we look more closely at LEAD.

I recently attended the excellent INNOVATION ROUNDTABLE® Summit in Copenhagen where I had the opportunity to host several roundtable discussions. I hosted one on leadership demands in the innovation age. Many participants helped identify some new characteristics to add to my list of the new leadership demands:

The foundations of many leadership models pre-date the innovation age by decades if you consider the beginning of the innovation age in 1995. Think about how innovation and technology have changed the workplace since 1995, or even in the last ten years; nature of teams, communication, organization boundaries, access to information, management principles, organizational beliefs and capabilities, work space, to name a few. The models and theories on which we base the practice of leadership need a reboot. While we still need values-driven leaders, inspirational leaders, situational, ambidextrous leaders and the like, the innovation age requires some additional leadership skills, as evidenced in the Innovation-Age Leadership Demands shown above.

While there are many leader skills and traits that still are appropriate, our models of leadership have been disrupted by innovation. If you look at the white space between a Warren Bennis and a Bill Gates definition of leadership, and add innovation era requirements, you find a definition for Innovation-Age Leadership



The capacity to: translate vision into reality, attract + empower teams to innovate using adaptive problem-solving, and unleash unprecedented levels of human potential.


The additional leadership skills required in the innovation age fall into four areas: 1) Adaptive Leadership, 2) Resource Attractor + Creator, 3) I-Environment Architect and 4) FRAMEr, GENERATEr and EMBEDr.

Adaptive Leadership

There is no better commentary to set the stage for leadership in the innovation age than the seminal Harvard Business Review article by Heifez and Laurie, “The Work of Leadership.”

The authors divide the world into two types of problems: technical and adaptive. Technical problems, while equally complex, as a generality have been solved before. They require expert advice and technical adjustments within basic routines. Technical problems lead to a “right” answer. Adaptive problems have not been solved before and require new learning and solutions to solve the problem. Adaptive problems lead to the best solution. In short, innovation requires adaptive problem solving. To become an adaptive leader, you must break your orthodoxy about what leaders know and do.

In the innovation age where adaptive problem solving is a requirement, here are 5 key actions that adaptive leaders can take to drive innovation in their company:

  • create a sandbox, derived from the enterprise strategy, that provides boundaries to focus innovation,

  • guide teams through the prickly yet rewarding innovation process, understanding the “distress” that accompanies innovation,

  • challenge the status quo and remove organization barriers that impede innovation,

  • lead with a “yes, and” or “How might We?” mentality, where certainty is not the dominant trait of a leader,

  • create a light-board for people to test and array their creativity.

Resource Attractor + Creator

In the information age, resources are less allocated than attracted and created. Resource attraction is easiest to understand by thinking about an open market for innovation where innovators vote with their feet. Imagine an open market in your company where people can work on the projects they find compelling, with leaders who inspire and support them.

I once watched resource attraction unfold in microcosm. We were working with a large company that was launching an innovation challenge where three teams would work separately on the same basic challenge. We were in a conference room with the 50 people who would make up the three core innovation teams. Three innovation leads, call them Sara, Amiri, and Mei spent the second hour of the workshop presenting their thoughts on how to approach the innovation challenge that each would lead. Sara and Mei presented their call-to-action carelessly and unconsciously using terms that hinted to a view of the past; “my team,” “tollgates,” and “project map.” While Sara and Mei presented their challenges; Amiri pitched his. He knew that he was selling and the people had free will to move to the team that inspired them the most. He pitched and created a compelling picture of an open and equal environment where team members would learn and contribute. He used terms like open, equality, explore and opportunity. All three were being genuine and good managers in their depiction of the challenge, but Amiri was a resource attractor. As you might imagine, when we opened the room and asked people to vote with their feet and move the challenge leaders that they would like to work with, most moved to Amiri.

In the innovation age, leaders are not “allocated” resources, you use your skills to attract the most talented people to your cause.

Resource creator is also an equally important leadership skill in the innovation age. Leaders who are resource creators can see groupings of people that others cannot. Where traditional leaders might think about organization charts, resource creators think about networks. As an adaptive leader, to create a network you start with a hunch and take a leap of faith. It’s scary.

I took they leap a few years ago. In one of my pervious jobs, I traveled the world and spent most of my time meeting thousands of my colleagues. We spent our days as most people in companies do, working on business topics in conference rooms. It was after hours over dinner that I really got to know my colleagues. To my surprise, I learned that my colleagues who looked buttoned-down at work were also stand-up comics, musicians, furniture designers, poets, and artists. I was amazed how extra creative they were. I begin to render in my mind an affinity group of creative people. I pitched the idea to a few of my colleagues; I called a “right brain” network. It went nowhere. I adapted it and tossed the ideas out into the world and got out of its way. Finally, a group of young professional ran with the idea and made it work. First, they changed the name to The Creatives. They organized their start-up and launched it a creative event in the evening to meet other creatives, using art and beer as their muses. Over time they attracted more and more like-minded creative people. It ultimately grew to include several hundred people, and counting. They are a creative force of nature.

They started a PechaKucha™ group that grew to include some of the most provocative topics you can imagine. They moved into the community to help local arts organizations and the local art museum. They formed lasting partnerships with other artists, architectural firms, and creative professionals. They co-sponsored a Park-ing day to turn city parking lots into creative event spaces. They contributed to the interior design in the company’s new headquarters by helping design collaborative spaces. They became the A-listers on the invites to innovation ideation sessions. They started a website to display their creative works, and they publish a monthly newsletter of all the events they are hosting or co-sponsoring. They are “resource creation” in the best sense, mobilizing seemingly out of thin air. I don’t know where they will go next, but I do know that it will be amazing. To this day, when I get their newsletter, an indescribable feeling of wonder comes over me.

Leaders in the innovation age are resource attractors and creators. They render new groups that can’t be seen by the naked eye nor exist on any organization chart. Innovation Leaders know how to sell their ideas because they realize that in today’s companies people have more discretion than ever before. At the end of the day, leaders know that the best outcome is that people are in innovation projects because they voted with their feet.

I-Environment Architect

The environment in organizations is an important factor in helping innovation thrive. I am not talking about culture, although culture is tangential, I am talking about the working and physical environment that helps innovation bloom.

Regarding the working environment, leaders have more power than they assume. Leaders who are transforming their company to be innovative can create an i-environment based on how they interact with people around tasks, the values they embody, the tone they set, their level of collaboration, their language (words + body), their demeanor, the way they ask questions, and the degrees of freedom they acknowledge. In the innovation age, leaders need to architect their work environment; they need to “curate” it.

I just finished teaching a class of 30 innovation professionals who are learning to be i-Mentors, the experts, and facilitators of innovation. In the middle of the week-long session, we had a great discussion about physical space. Some wanted to start innovation in their company by requesting the resources for a fun, creative, windowed, ultra-contemporary innovation space. I offered a counter argument.

I am sure in my practice as an innovation lead I messed this up, it took me several years to get the way I thought about physical “space” right. I learned that leading with a requirement for a physical space in your newly minted innovation initiative is like leading with your chin. Space is important, but you should have a few innovations under you belt before you take up the fight for an innovative space in your company. (Can we agree that getting “space” in companies is almost always a fight?) You can, however, start by creating innovative spaces on the cheap. Find a “closet” or a storeroom or a small space that no one is tending to, and slowly, without fanfare move in. Bring in some color. Some sticky notes. Some toys. Markers. Buy 2 six-foot foam core boards and join them on the long side with a spine of white duct tape to create standing whiteboards (as my colleges at Notre Dame recently did). Start small and cheap. Once innovation begins to pay, you can begin to build an innovation garage, i-lab or i-space. Physical environment is an innovation enabler, but the investment in space must lag (sometimes by years) your company’s innovation payouts.


In the Innovation Universe, leaders must lead the activities required in FRAME, GENERATE, and EMBED. It sounds so simple but you would be surprised how often leaders overlook these accountabilities. FRAME requires leaders to set and translate strategy and from that, create an innovation sandbox and definition. While leaders should be collaborative with all levels/groups in developing these, the accountability for ensuring that they exist and are palatable for employees falls to the leadership team. Generate is a bit cloudier. While we want leaders, (everyone, for that matter) to create innovations, leaders have an added accountability in GENERATE. They also must help the organization make decisions on key elements of GENERATE such as process + tools, types + approaches, ecosystems and metrics and pipelines for innovation success. Lastly, EMBED, the transformation of the company, falls squarely on the shoulders of leaders. Transformations that don’t happen as a grass roots efforts, there are management systems that only the leadership team can change.


I LOVE ITALY. I was there earlier this year, on the island of Capri, with two of my sisters and my aunt. My aunt hurt her foot and needed assistance walking. She asked if there transportation that could take her back to the city center. This ingenious invention is what they sent. It’s a chair carefully tied down to the bed of a scooter-type two seater cart. What works in Capri as for LEAD is often very simple to conceive but hard to execute without a leap of faith.

The Innovation Universe has four celestial bodies that drive innovation within companies: FRAME, GENERATE, EMBED, and LEAD. LEAD is about unleashing human potential within yourself and others. LEAD in the Innovation Universe new leadership skills and accountabilities required to unleash innovation in your company. We are learning how to be innovation leaders; practicing and striving to lead in the innovation age by taking the leap.

Dr. Nancy Tennant for the INNOVATION UNIVERSE

©2017 Nancy Tennant. All Rights Reserved.

Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Search By Tags
No tags yet.
Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Google+ Basic Square
bottom of page