The Steinhoff Saga Management review - University of Stellenbosch Business School

July – December 2019

What does it take to lead today’s technology innovators?

By Dr Awie Vlok, Prof Marius Ungerer and Dr Johan Malan

  • DEC 2019
  • Tags Futures Studies
24 minutes to read

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Leadership in a connected world

Leading teams to successfully bring about new technologies during fast-changing times can be challenging. Today, people are more connected than before; they can access knowledge, networks, equipment and services themselves without corporate structures and management permission.

What, then, are the competencies that technology innovation leaders should have in order to lead teams to successful technology innovation?

Already in 1982, Peter Drucker warned that the management of innovation will become increasingly challenging. This may have been an early attempt to reveal the shortcomings of a management paradigm for innovation.

A different perspective suggests that the best managers of the most innovative organisations do not tell their employees how to innovate. Instead, they shape the chaos. Insubordination is a secret ingredient in Google’s success: ideas emerge organically through conversations, with managers keeping unruly conversations going while listening for what bubbles up.

A different perspective suggests that the best managers of the most innovative organisations do not tell their employees how to innovate. Instead, they shape the chaos.

These two perspectives – proper planning versus organic change – convey different views of what the person heading up a team for innovation should be doing.

This study accepts that management and leadership may be important for innovation, and that one person could assume responsibility for both. However, the term leader is used because of the increasing emphasis on the ability to influence and inspire others to engage in innovation.

Although managing innovation has changed, the leadership discussion has not necessarily followed this development. The authors, after reviewing 13 leadership theories or models for their potential relevance to leading technology innovation, could not gain a holistic view of what successful technology innovation leadership competencies entailed. So they started afresh and asked: What technology innovation leader competencies are required for successful technology innovation? What individual behaviours underpin leader competencies? Can we draw up a theoretical model for innovation leadership?

The connection between leadership and innovation management

The ability to lead others to innovate is becoming increasingly important because human factors are crucial for innovation. In technology-driven organisations, hit-and-miss innovations can often be linked back to the human chemistry of innovation, including leadership. While technology innovation is important for business, the human element can be an organisation’s greatest innovation asset.

Leaders responsible for leading innovation are expected to shape innovation performance and inspire others to embrace innovation. Yet, innovation leadership competencies are uncertain, untested and inconclusive. Innovation should be managed in new ways, based on new insights, and not be driven merely by efficiencies, as many managers have been trained to do. The innovation challenge for leaders is to mobilise knowledge, technological skills and experience to create value. However, as leaders face lots of uncertainty, they need to change the way they manage and lead.

Innovation insights that may contribute to the improved performance of innovation leaders are often not integrated with existing practices, resulting in gaps that leave innovation leaders vulnerable. While most leaders accept the significance of innovation, many of them appear to be uncertain about what they should do differently to improve their innovation success.

Some claim that innovation is too complex for leaders to influence performance effectively while others claim that leadership is the best predictor of innovation. Either way, up to now there has not been much guidance for such leaders.

In technology-driven organisations, hit-and-miss innovations can often be linked back to the human chemistry of innovation, including leadership.

Understanding the innovation process

To answer the research question – namely what technology innovation leader competencies are deemed necessary for successful technology innovation – clarity on the innovation process was required to identify the leader competencies needed for successful technology innovation.

The researchers therefore reviewed 10 innovation processes – including the generic innovation process, the technology push process, the integrated process, the network spiral process and the presensing process – before concluding that none of these could be elevated to a universally representative level. Next, they deconstructed the 10 innovation processes into component parts in order to rearrange the parts without fundamentally changing them. Based on the deconstruction process, six clusters of leader competencies were conceptualised to use as primary codes for a thematic content analysis of expert interviews, case studies, workshops and literature reviews. These competency clusters were:

  • Cluster 1: Integrative competencies
  • Cluster 2: Technology connectedness competencies
  • Cluster 3: Competencies to achieve stakeholder alignment
  • Cluster 4: Competencies to liberate mind sets
  • Cluster 5: Value creation competencies
  • Cluster 6: Value realisation competencies.

Looking at existing leadership models

Finding literature on leader competencies for successful technology innovation was challenging.

There is the growing understanding of the interconnectedness between technical issues and people issues in leading technology innovation. This includes motivational factors, the challenges of managing creative professionals, cross-disciplinary team issues, leadership styles and roles, and organisational processes and practices related to technology innovation. Another collection of case studies on the management of innovation added insights on leadership and learning, one of which had found that leadership was the only factor consistently and positively correlated with perceived innovation effectiveness.

In this study, the authors reviewed 13 leadership theories and models for their potential relevance to leading technology innovation:

  • Transformational leadership model
  • Transactional leadership model
  • Path-goal leadership theory
  • Leader-member exchange theory
  • Innovation leader behaviour inventory
  • Project leader behaviours
  • Facilitating increased creativity
  • Total innovation management framework
  • Gliddon’s innovation leader’s competency model
  • ILQ innovation leader competencies
  • Collective genius approach
  • Special-forces framework
  • Servant leadership model.

Leaders responsible for leading innovation are expected to shape innovation performance and inspire others to embrace innovation.

Innovation increasingly requires the creative combination of different disciplines and perspectives; and a mere aggregation of available theories will not represent a holistic view of what successful technology innovation entails. The bridging transition from what can be imagined to the creation and realisation of value can be seen as the essence of innovation. Competent innovation leadership is critical to innovation success, and is about inspiring individuals to higher levels of performance, to go the extra mile – which is often required in innovation, as leaders shape new futures by looking forward and connecting things in new ways. Connecting things in new ways, however, requires integrative capabilities that have only partially been acknowledged in the leader competencies literature. While sustainable competitiveness requires organisation-wide coherence, organisations often experience a lack of communication among the marketing, R&D, and manufacturing functions. Collaborative innovation involving players in supply chains may also require integrative skills for which a leader may have to assume responsibility.

It is clear that innovation leaders are challenged in new ways for which competencies may not yet have been defined. Can theoretical perspectives simply be extrapolated or used by leaders to imagine and realise technology futures, or does this call for a new approach to determine appropriate leader skills?

The next steps in the research process

Further research was conducted to obtain data from sources other than the theoretical perspectives found in the literature. This study focused only on competent technology innovation leader behaviours.

In essence, qualitative research triangulated expert opinions, case materials, workshops results and the literature to identify leadership competencies. A measurement instrument was developed for the quantitative research, which involved eligible respondents rating the significance of identified leader behaviours. Statistically significant relationships were found in a hypothetical competency model. The results reinforced some previously identified competencies, and contributed to understanding and identifying additional innovation leader competencies, including integrative leader competencies, to lead technology innovation into the future.

This study adopted an exploratory research approach and added a survey method. Exploratory research is conducted when few or no previous studies exist, and aims to identify patterns, hypotheses or ideas that can be tested or that form the basis for further research, to provide alternative explanations or to confirm the exploratory results.

Four steps

Steps 1 and 2 covered the qualitative study phase that fed into steps 3 and 4 of the quantitative study phase. A pragmatic perspective ensured that knowledge contributions would be both scientifically and managerially relevant and timely.

There is the growing understanding of the interconnectedness between technical issues and people issues in technology innovation.

Step 1: Design and implement a qualitative strand for the adequate coverage of variables for saturation

A total of 12 experts were interviewed to obtain their views on the processes and competencies of successful technology innovation leaders in their environments. Practitioner workshops were also conducted. The data was analysed to identify the underpinning leader behaviours, resulting in six interim process competency cluster constructs: integrative leader competencies, technology connectedness, stakeholders’ alignment, liberating minds sets, value creation and value realisation.

Cluster 1: Integrative leader competencies

According to the experts interviewed, successful technology innovation leaders have exceptional integrative capabilities in bringing technology, business and people elements together in successful technology innovation. Issues of context, complexity, integrating the efforts of highly talented individuals, and an ability to create disproportionate amounts of value from available resources were emphasised. The underpinning leader behaviours identified from the qualitative data reinforced some previous research findings, such as the leader leading by example as a role model, developing an inspirational and intellectually challenging vision, engaging people, empowering them, supporting them, recognising innovation performance, and ongoing feedback. The experts mentioned four behaviours not previously included in innovation leadership literature:

  • The leaders had a broadly-defined framework or plan for the envisaged innovation
  • They systemically integrated technical, people and business elements
  • They solicited intense levels of shared ownership in generating innovative solutions
  • They radiated a positive innovation energy rooted in a positive attitude in support of the vision.

Cluster 2: Technology connectedness competencies

Technology innovation leaders appear to be in constant contact with changing science and technology landscapes. Examples were given of technology decisions being reversed within 24 hours because of new software becoming available that would dilute the anticipated value of their previous decision. The technology connectedness of the leader was not mentioned in the innovation leadership literature reviewed, yet it emerged as being critically important for the leader to be respected as a credible thought leader. These leaders had their own channels feeding them with news, and had personal networks to access experts. They established collective tracking mechanisms with others to monitor trends; they considered new possibilities as strategically aligned portfolios; and they always knew what was going on in their operating landscapes to help them model alternative futures.

Cluster 3: Competencies to achieve stakeholders’ alignment

The experts emphasised trust-based relationships with stakeholders. Technology innovation leaders appear to have frequent interaction with people whose support may positively influence technology innovation success. Political or competitor agendas were cited as examples of technology innovation projects that succeeded or failed. In most of the innovation processes reviewed, external support was also mentioned. It is clear that successful technology innovation leaders appeared to be in constant interaction to understand their stakeholders’ interests, helping them to explore new ideas and innovations. These leaders were competent in their communications, in obtaining interest and support from stakeholders, and in managing possible tensions between them, while also ensuring that the design parameters accommodated different stakeholder interests.

Cluster 4: Competencies for liberating mind sets

Leaders may focus on creative thinking or ideation, while successful technology leaders appear to focus on challenging the beliefs and assumptions that prevent people from thinking beyond what is already possible and available, and to creatively explore new paradigms made possible by new advancements. The underpinning behaviours indicate that successful technology innovation leaders can elevate the thinking in teams beyond what could be accomplished with traditional ideation practices. These leaders managed to establish a creative energy focused on integrative solutions-thinking and value improvement by reframing the challenges and by provoking new.

The bridging transition from what can be imagined to the creation and realisation of value can be seen as the essence of innovation.

Cluster 5: Value creation competencies

Successful technology innovation leaders seem able to guide others towards turning their creative thinking into something of value. Some successful technology innovation leaders combined value-creation and competencies in liberating mind sets to contribute simultaneously to technology innovation. These leaders seemed to minimise risk and maximise learning by working with customers to understand their needs, by working collaboratively in cross-functional teams, and by undertaking low-cost marketing experiments to bring about successful technology innovation that the customer perceives as value, thereby generating revenue potential. These leaders understood and managed the disruptive effects of technology innovation while establishing mechanisms to identify and protect new intellectual property, and putting together strong commercialisation teams.

Cluster 6: Value realisation competencies

According to the experts, successful technology innovation leaders can facilitate the adoption or deployment of new technology so that monetary and other benefits from their work materialise in line with their strategic intent. The literature confirmed that the innovation cycle was not complete if invention alone was the objective. Leaders tended to make technology innovation the responsibility of those involved in a system of innovation to deliver what receivers regard as value, and they would deploy and scale implementation to maximise value realisation. These leaders facilitated the co-creation of integrated solutions by engaging the stakeholders involved in the adoption and transfer of new technologies, while educating and supporting the adopters of technology innovations and providing agile responsiveness to deal with unanticipated adoption issues. They also used their technology innovation support mechanisms to identify new opportunities for innovation.

Competent innovation leadership is critical to innovation success … as leaders shape new futures by looking forward and connecting things in new ways.

Step 2: Strategise on qualitative findings to confirm research questions, instruments and participants

Having identified competencies and behaviours, their significance still had to be established to answer the research questions through a survey questionnaire completed by technology innovation leaders who had previously achieved successful technology innovation. The identified competencies, with 60 underpinning behaviours, were used to develop a questionnaire that 18 experts reviewed to ensure that the questions measured what the survey intended to measure.

Step 3: Design and implement quantitative data collection for reliable and valid measuring

After the development, validation and pilot testing of the measurement instrument, the main survey was used for data collection and assessment of psychometric properties.

The respondents were successful technology innovation leaders from private and public research laboratories, universities and knowledge-based organisations representing a range of technologies. The mean for years of experience in technology innovation was 14.7 years. Several techniques were used to analyse the data.

All the identified leader competencies received relatively high ratings, while integrative leadership was rated as the most significant at a median of 45.5. The second-highest ratings were for technology connectedness, while the third-highest ratings were for liberating mind sets. Of the respondents, 90% agreed that technology innovation may not follow a linear sequential process, while 79% agreed that technology innovation is only achieved when value is derived.

Based on the identification of interim competencies and supporting behavioural items, the hypothetical model of expected construct relationships was constructed. Integrative leadership was expected to show a causal relationship with the other leader competency constructs. This model expected a strong relationship between the success orientation and the integrative leadership competencies of the leader.

Step 4: Interpret the results of a conceptual and theoretically sound model with empirical evidence

The relationships between the constructs were all significant, except for the path coefficient between success orientation and integrative leadership orientation. This suggests that the influence of success orientation on integrative leadership is weaker than other path coefficients. This is not totally unexpected because, during both the expert interviews and the workshops, comments were made about the near-impossible expectations that stakeholders sometimes have of technology innovation, such as simultaneously delivering technology innovations for competitiveness, economic growth, job creation, people benefits and radical innovation.

Connecting things in new ways, however, requires integrative capabilities that have only partially been acknowledged in the leader competencies literature.

This led to the creation of a statistical model depicting the relationship between success orientation and technology innovation leader competencies for successful technology innovation. Thus, as required in Step 4, the emergent m

odel is theoretically sound, based on empirical evidence, and can be described as an ‘integrative innovation leadership model’.

Innovation leadership
Figure 1: Integrative innovation leadership model

How does this research contribute towards leading technological innovation?

This study contributes in four ways to a better understanding of how to lead technological innovation.

Leader competencies: Firstly, the research data confirmed the importance of some leader competencies that had been identified before. These leader competencies were included in the integrative innovation leadership model together with newly identified leader behaviours and added innovation process competencies not previously associated with leaders, such as technology connectedness, stakeholder alignment, liberating mind sets, value creation and value realisation. The identification of these competencies addresses competencies across the entire innovation process, previously seen as a gap.

  • The managerial implication is that the competency development of technology innovation leaders needs to cover more than what may be available in generic leadership courses, and more than what is covered in technical training.

The multi-disciplinary nature of leading technology innovation: The second contribution is the emphasis on the multi-disciplinary nature of leading technology innovation, and the integrative competencies required of the leader. The integration of contextual factors, including macro- and micro-economic and strategic technology innovation factors, appears to reflect the integrative leader competencies identified in this study as being required for successful technology innovation. It also appears that integrative leadership would address task partitioning pitfalls previously found to be problematic transition points between players in innovation processes.

  • The managerial implication is that innovation leaders need to be aware of the consequences of task partitioning to bring about a smooth transition between process areas divided by task partitioning. If not, silo behaviours and turf wars across the innovation process could have dire consequences at systemic innovation performance levels.

… the competency development of technology innovation leaders needs to cover more than what may be available in generic leadership courses, and more than what is covered in technical training.

The application of leader competencies in different sequences: The third contribution is that leader competencies may be applied in different sequences. The participating experts and successful innovation leaders indicated that traditional linear sequential technology innovation processes have become an exception rather than the norm, except for processes dictated by the laws of nature. Instead, these leaders were competent to apply competency sets in context-specific sequences through integrative leadership and technology connectedness, stakeholders’ alignment, liberating mind sets, value creation and value realisation in line with the success orientation of the leader. These insights build on earlier observations that, while innovation can be seen as a core process with a defined structure, innovation processes in reality are complex.

  • The managerial implications include the need for managers to acquire competencies for more agile responses during unforeseen landscape changes. If not, it is fair to conclude that innovation plans, budgets, systems and measurements would continue to reflect a check list or compliance mode of thinking, at the expense of more agile innovation processes.

Conceptual model for integrative innovation leadership: The fourth contribution is the conceptual model for integrative innovation leadership. Statistically significant relationships found between leader competencies suggest that the leader’s success orientation positively influences integrative leader competencies, which in turn influence the leader’s competencies related to technology connectedness, stakeholder alignment, liberating mind sets, value creation and value realisation. The weak link in the model is the relationship between success orientation and integrative leadership, which requires further research.

  • The managerial implication is that leaders may have to place more emphasis on prior agreement with stakeholders on which success metric will apply for their envisaged technology innovation. Current research data does not explain this finding.

Mastering innovation leadership towards successful innovation performance

This research identified the technology innovation leader competencies required for successful technology innovation as six clusters of leader competencies that may occur in different context-specific sequences.

These results provide technology innovation leaders, trainers and researchers with research-based content on technology innovation leader competencies that allows them to experiment with this integrative approach to leading for innovation.

… silo behaviours and turf wars across the innovation process could have dire consequences at systemic performance levels.

Humanity’s challenges are calling for more innovation than before. This study confirmed a shift away from industrial-age leadership practices towards collaborative leadership in which the technology innovation leader adopts an integrative leadership approach.

  • Find the original article here: Vlok, A., Ungerer, M., & Malan, J. (2019). Integrative leadership for technology innovation. International Journal of Technology Management, 79(3/4), 247–273.
  • Dr Awie Vlok joined the Economic and Management Sciences Faculty of Stellenbosch University where he lectures on innovation management and conducts research on innovation leaders. His PhD focused on competencies of technology innovation leaders in knowledge-intensive organisations.
  • Prof Marius Ungerer teaches strategic management, leadership and change management on programmes such as the MBA, the MPhil in Management Coaching, and the PGDip in Leadership Development at the University of Stellenbosch Business School. He is an annual Visiting Professor at the NUCB Graduate School, International MBA Program, Nagoya, Japan, and a visiting faculty member of the University of Johannesburg.
  • Dr Johan Malan is an Emeritus Professor and previous chair of the Department of Industrial Psychology, Stellenbosch University. He holds a DPhil in Psychology from Stellenbosch University. His primary research interests include preventive psychology, psycho-education, performance dysfunctions, psychological assessment and innovation leadership.

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