Why Your Company Needs An Innovation Project Leader

Pete Newell

January 21, 2022

Anyone who has worked in a large organization, be it a government agency or leading corporation, is familiar with the phrases “That’s the way it always has been done” and “we need to take more risk.”

Yet despite the calls for change there isn’t a single job description, much less a certification, that shows a potential candidate is qualified and experienced enough to form and lead a team to “achieve the impossible” and actually deliver an innovative solution to a rapidly emerging problem.  Today’s successes are largely based on individual heroics, rather than the result of a dedicated process to identify, much less grow - at scale - a crop of leaders capable of making repeatable, scalable innovation a part of their organization’s culture.

Anyone who has tried to bring about change in a large organization also knows those are the words where innovation goes to die, swallowed up after perhaps a promising start by well-intentioned, even hard-working, souls primarily interested in keeping their jobs rather than taking the risks required to perform them at their highest levels. 

That is why an innovation project needs not just a visionary who can identify a problem and possible solution, but a leader who can see the project through – past the countless hurdles and stumbling blocks that will arise; the types of challenges that send the job-keepers of the world back behind the comfort of the tried and known.   

The job to be done

The innovation project leader can make the difference between a promising idea that delivers little more than a momentary jolt of energy to an organization and achieving lasting, positive change.  

An effective innovation project leader knows the tried and known is usually not the way toward progress. She knows the path toward those things will be marked, with potholes. Most importantly, she knows how to navigate those obstacles, and bring others along on the journey. 

She will serve many functions, among them:

Oversight. Leading the project from incubation through permanent absorption into the processes and culture of the organization.

Watchdog. Representing the problem owner as a project moves forward, ensuring the effort remains directed at finding and solving the correct version of the problem.

Scrutiny. Identifying and proposing solutions to internal and external barriers in the enterprise innovation pipeline. She will navigate obstacles, find opportunities to accelerate adoption, and identify points where the proposed solution needs to adapt to bring about desired results.

Transition. Starting from the earliest stages of a project, the leader will plan for a successful transition of the project so it can bring about lasting change. This will include identifying relevant transition stakeholders (a network of advisors, advocates and affiliates) as well as new processes and resources. The leader will bring the new team together, then motivate and empower them to continue on the new path for the betterment of stakeholders, employees and owners.


Finally, the team leader will be the person trusted to identify whether the innovation project should be terminated, while also identifying what value can be extracted from a “failed” endeavor and whether there are points at which to pivot to a new direction.


The Ideal Innovation Project Leader (IPL)

A project leader must be just that – a leader. But that term means many different things, each important to a project’s success. 

She must be able to remain oriented on the true north of the project’s goals, while simultaneously identifying where to operate “outside the lines” along the journey. The leader must be willing to understand, and manage, the risks in doing so – while inspiring others to do the same, those on the innovation team and those who will inherit the changed system as the new normal. Remember, an innovation project generally is a failure if the innovation team can never let go of the reins.

A leader understands different change approaches and when to apply them. Some challenges require a hard-headed, stubborn push to break through a problem decisively. Others will require the “slowly boiling the frog” approach to soften what might be an uncomfortable transition.

“...it comes down to two things: first, an understanding of the people/culture/institutions that you’re trying to change – if you don’t understand or know them, you don’t know how to change them. Second, it really comes down to the soft skill of being able to read people – what are their priorities/guardrails? What are they trying to accomplish?
“It’s a really soft, hard-to-define skill, but when people have it, it works wonders – when people don’t have it, they often fail, because they don’t understand the importance of coalition building.”  — Lauren Dailey, former senior director, Defense Innovation Unit 

Similarly, a good leader is able to identify her own areas of deficiency.

Ideally, he or she will be a generalist, someone with a broad and diverse range of experience and networks to draw from.

When building a project management team, the IPL should seek to recruit the right components – a diverse collection of backgrounds, experience and expertise that can attack a challenge on many fronts.

The project leader should be able to share process ownership and success with the team and partners, while accepting responsibility and providing support as the team leader. 

The leader should have the ability to recognize, collect and analyze relevant data along the journey and use it to make the adjustments needed to remain on the course toward true north – or to identify whether north truly lies in a different location than originally thought.

He or she must be able to use data for continuous monitoring and evaluation.

Finally, the ideal IPL will be irrationally optimistic. There will be hurdles and pushback in the face of change. Constantly battling bureaucracy and the “That’s the way we do it” mentality takes an excessive amount of optimism and determination – and the ability to nurture those qualities in others.


What to Look For

While it’s best for a project leader to be a generalist, flexible enough to adapt to a wide range of challenges that will arise along the way, experience working in the realm in question, be it an established company, government agency or other, relevant bureaucracy, is essential.

She will need more than a passing knowledge of the shifting terrain; the people who can provide expertise to envision solutions to thorny problems; and/or the resources needed to surmount them.  In the process she must be able to sort out and adjust for the constantly shifting landscape of saboteurs, supporters, advocates and key partners.

“The IPL needs experience in navigating [the organization] because the experience provides the context required to be able to “natively” identify and communicate what is most relevant to the organization.” — Capt. Lauren Hansen-Armendariz, U.S. Army


Knowing the ecosystem will enable the leader to identify onramps and off-ramps throughout the process, not just the initial and final objectives.

The candidate will need the experience required to communicate what is most relevant to the organization. She should have enough experience in the field to command respect from those occupying the bureaucratic ladder. How the leader is able to handle conversations (about the procurement and acquisitions process, budget development and execution, etc.) with those on each rung will go a long way toward determining buy-in and success.

The project leader should have experience working with different customers and agencies, a breadth of know-how that will breed creativity. She should have operated in complex environments (technical, non-technical) with members from diverse teams and disciplines, and have experience leading projects in the past – even so-called failures, as long as he or she learned from what went wrong. (The ideal candidate will have a good “failure story.” She should be able to reflect upon past experience and demonstrate they learned from it.)

Of course, evaluating the aptitude in a candidate for navigating any bureaucracy is not necessarily easy. One possible way of determining ability would be to have a candidate participate in – or lead – a sprint involving a complex problem.

In any event, it is likely a chosen change leader will have to embed in the organization in question, at least part time, if he or she is not already there. Immersion is the best way to learn an organization. Understanding the institution is necessary to adequately guide critical initiatives. Individuals who are not embedded in the organization tend to be great advocates but not necessarily drivers of efforts.

It is rare that you will find all of these qualities and experiences in one person. That is why it is important for the candidate to be able to see the whole field, assemble a team that can cover sideline to sideline, and inspire each member to do their part, on every play, to gain positive yardage.

In short, when seeking to bring about change in an organization, the ability to identify a problem and envision even the best of solutions is only part of the equation. Without an effective project leader to see an improvement effort through, ideas and designs will not add up to anything of much or lasting value. 


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