Leadership
March 13, 2021

What is an innovation manager and how do you become one?

Innovation is such an important topic for anyone interested in forward thinking and current business strategies. It not only helps your company or vision survive, but also flourish in such a competitive environment which is subject to constant change and disruption. If you’re new to the innovation conversation, or it’s your first time here at Pondr Blogs, check out some of our previous articles outlining what innovation actually is, management models and theories, how to measure it, the importance of it and the different types that exist.

What is an Innovation Manager?

Whether you’re looking to hire some real innovative talent for your business, or you’re interested in this role yourself, this article will be useful for you. So, what is an Innovation Manager? The terminology can change depending on the business, and the position can certainly entail a diverse set of roles. Because of this, we will be focusing on the skills that are very much needed for this type of job.

If you’re scouring the market for new positions, you may come across the terms Chief Innovation Officer, Innovation Director, Innovation Portfolio Manager, or Head of Innovation. You may also see jobs advertised for more junior levels and for a specific area, such as Innovation Product Manager or Innovation Project Manager. A few other role titles might be Developer, Idea Manager, Innovation Strategist, Futurologist, or Portfolio Manager.

An innovation manager is typically the lead who oversees all research and strategy for bringing the business forward, having long term vision and finding new opportunities for growth. While some may think innovation managers work in the research and development area of a business, this is only one aspect. An innovation manager above all else must be a jack-of-all-trades who is skilled in a multiplicity of areas, such as technology, HR and business management. Such tasks might include setting up a team from scratch to shaping long term goals of an entire company. Or it could be managing and monitoring a specific portfolio, or building strategies by researching other industries and adopting them into their corporate organization.

The majority of managers in innovation roles are not so much innovators themselves, but rather manage and create the right structure so that innovative minds within the company can thrive, otherwise known as what Michael Putz describes as ‘enablers.’ However, a study by the Harvard Business Review that studies how innovative entrepreneurs differ from typical executives found some important conclusions. It notes that in the most successful innovative companies, senior executives don’t delegate creative work, they do it themselves. This finding reveals just how important it is to not only learn the necessary skills, but also be aware of them - to really get involved rather than just oversee.

Key skillsets of an Innovation Manager

This section will be split into the main areas of importance; personality and practicality.

Useful Personality Traits

In this section, we thought it would be useful to compile some of the research we’ve come across that points to some basic personality traits that will come in very useful in this line of work. This is not to deter you from following this path if you lack any of these traits, but could show you what you may need to work on, or more positively could show you that you’re made for this! The following important traits are:

  • Flexibility; this also means a willingness to change, switch course or the ability to think on your feet. If you’re someone who not only responds well to change, but seeks it out, you’ll be an asset.
  • Curiosity; a hunger to learn more about whatever area you work in is a fundamental checkbox for an innovative spirit. Everyone has curiosity within them, you just need to find what it is you can’t stop thinking about, then chase that. This also means not being afraid to dive into new terrain.
  • Optimism; an optimistic spirit means having eyes that seek opportunity everywhere. If you’re a glass half full kind of person, you won’t see an obstacle as a reason to stop and turn around, but rather a reason to continue and change what’s in your way.
  • Tough Skin; this is one that most people have to practice. No matter what part of the spectrum you find yourself on here, it is so important to remind yourself that your ideas will get denied, you will fail. Don’t take this personally! As the famous Thomas Edison once said, “I haven’t failed. I’ve simply found 10,000 ways that do not work.” In fact, innovation requires failure, so don’t be so hard on yourself! And the more risky or disruptive the innovation, the more likely it will be to fail.
  • Strategic; coming up with new ideas in your head is all well and good, but unfortunately there’s a huge difference between dreaming and doing. Being someone who can actually envision the how of getting a job finished is a major plus.
  • Leadership; this trait also refers to how good one is with people. If you find you can get along with a multitude of different personality types, chances are you will be a good leader. In our opinion, leadership is not about being good at telling others what to do, but how well you navigate and invigorate a team’s spirit or vision. People with empathy tend to make great leaders.
  • Entrepreneurial Spirit; all of the above are part of this last trait. The ‘spirit’ also refers to a person who is not a perfectionist, but is more interested in seeing the job get done.

Practical Skill Sets

There are of course basic skill sets which are required for any management position, such as the aforementioned communication and people skills, as well as being able to have a breadth of knowledge about the business as a whole, the management of it and a deep understanding of the technology used in the industry. However, the following set of practical skills are what will set you apart as a talented Innovation Manager:

  • An omniscentific approach; omniscience is a term that literally means ‘the state of knowing everything.’ As an innovative manager, you need to have a zoomed out perspective of the whole puzzle and all its parts. You need to make sure you’re in the know about each piece, simultaneously looking into future trends and technologies, having strategic insight for a current portfolio project, and understanding the support needed for everyone on the team. In a recent Sloan Management review published by MIT, they deemed this the most important skill.
  • First Principles Thinking; ‘The First Principle’ has been used across all areas of thinking, from philosophy, to math and physics or other sciences. It means boiling down any process to the fundamental parts, and building back up from there. It is helpful for finding solutions to problems that may seem overly complicated or convoluted. A famous example of an entrepreneur who swears by this theory is Elon Musk, especially as it relates to his space X project and his search for a cheaper means of space travel.
  • Clarity of Vision; It is important to always have clarity, to be able to see where you are going and where you want to go. If you find you are starting to get muddled in the middle of a project, take time out to stop and reassess and find your ground again.
  • Cross Industry Experience; this is more about the skills that come out of having cross industry experience. It will help you as well as look very attractive to an employer if you have a mixed background in multiple industries. Innovation thrives when different worlds collide.
  • Technologically Minded; The world is already dominated by technology, and we will be even more integrated with it in the future. All current innovations are linked to either the invention of technologies or utilising an already existing one to its fullest capacity. The next generation of big time innovators will need to collaborate with artificial intelligence, robotics, genetic engineering or virtual reality to name a few. You may not be responsible for inventing something new, but you will most likely need to be very knowledgeable about future trends and existing capabilities.

How to become an Innovation Manager

The main thing about innovation is, there aren’t really any rules. Studying innovation should never be seen as a guidebook but rather a framework from which you can draw from. At the heart of it, innovation is truly about thinking outside the box, and having the vision and perspective to imagine what doesn’t exist yet. It’s no wonder that the majority of successful entrepreneurs share similar experiences of being either self-taught students or proud drop-outs.

Therefore, this section is not so much a roadmap of which degree to take or which places to apply to. It is more of an abstract guide on how you can achieve some of the skills listed above which is what employers will be looking for, and will help you become more well rounded.

In gathering our research for this section, we found ‘The Innovator’s DNA’ in the Harvard Business Review to be the most practical as well as powerful. The article, which is actually a research document taken over 6 years, outlines the habits of 25 innovative entrepreneurs as well as 3,000 executives and 500 other people who have started companies or come up with new products. It noticed that there were a set of five ‘discovery skills’ that were shared amongst the most successful. Here is a short summary of what they call ‘the innovator’s DNA’:

  • Associating; here they refer to the ability to ‘connect seemingly unrelated questions, problems, or ideas from different fields.’ They note that associating is a mental muscle which grows with practice. It also relates to why an employer will see your cross-industry experience as a major plus. New ideas always come about by a process of recombining and reshuffling.
  • Questioning; the key words in this area are ‘Why’, ‘Why not,’ and ‘What if?’ They advise allowing yourself to imagine opposites and also embrace constraints - doing both these can serve as another catalyst. As Peter Drucker once said, “The important and difficult job is never to find the right answers, but is to find the right question.”
  • Observing; being able to truly look at the world around you is so important; it is how humans discover. This category, they explain, is where entrepreneurs become social scientists or anthropologists. Knowing every detail of human behaviour will give insight into what a company does, who it serves, and who it's competing against. If you don’t know what already exists, it will be harder to combine new pieces of a puzzle.
  • Experimenting; this area also goes back to our ‘tough skin’ trait. Experimentation is part and parcel of failure, or on a more optimistic note, learning. The article gives a great piece of advice on how you can implement more experimentation into your practice that doesn’t involve a white lab coat; work abroad! One of their research experiments studied those who had this type of life experience, and proved significantly more successful in their innovations than those who hadn’t.
  • Networking; again, this is about bringing diversity into your life, and expanding your knowledge base by meeting new people who can bring fresh ideas and perspectives into your universe. They noted that successful innovators shared a practice of attending events and conferences that brought together “artists, entrepreneurs, academics, politicians, adventurers, scientists and thinkers from all over the world.”

Conclusion

The aforementioned Innovator’s DNA article reassures its readers not to worry if you don’t think you have what it takes, everything can be cultivated - and we agree. You may be stronger in one area over another, but no matter where you are on your journey it is always important to be constantly learning, practicing, experimenting, and creating. Using practice to develop and strengthen your assets is what will lead to greater confidence in your future projects. So, get rehearsing!

* Tips: If you don’t feel like you’re quite ready to fly solo or trust your own intuition, find a mentor you look up to or could learn from. Find a way - whether that’s employment or internship - to work as closely with this person as possible. Secondly, it’s been proven many times over that repeat entrepreneurial projects are more successful than first timers - so never give up!

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