What Is an Innovation Manager – And How Do You Become a Great One?

by Jesse Nieminen

In the last few months, I’ve had a few readers ask me how they could become an innovation manager, as well as how they could succeed in that role.

So, I thought I’d give my take on what an innovation manager actually does, how to become one, and how to be good at the job.

Without further ado, let’s get to it!

What is an innovation manager?

As with most other things innovation related, the role of an innovation manager can often be quite fuzzy.

There isn’t necessarily just a single job description that would apply for the role regardless of the organization in question, unlike for example sales or engineering managers. The same basic job can also be referred to with a number of different titles, for example head of innovation, chief innovation officer, or innovation portfolio manager.

An innovation manager

Some of these roles might, in reality, be director or executive level assignments which naturally have slightly different responsibilities, but even for them the core remains the same. So, for the purposes of this article, we’ll be considering all of these as a group.

If we look at what most organizations seem to expect innovation managers to do is actually NOT to be innovators themselves. I think this is quite a common misunderstanding for those who’d like to become one.

While there are certainly exceptions, typically innovation managers are what Michael Putz, the founder of LEAD Innovation, refers to as enablers.

In practice, it means that innovation managers often help shape the culture and processes required for innovation to succeed in a given organization, as well as train others throughout the organization on how to get better at it.

Innovation managers help shape the culture and processes required for innovation to succeed in a given organization, as well as train others on how to get better at it.

It is also relatively common for innovation managers to be overseeing a portfolio of innovation initiatives. Most of the time they don’t actually have a profit and loss responsibility for that portfolio, or the individual projects within, but are instead responsible for analyzing the portfolio, and for identifying opportunities for improvement therein.

What are the key skillsets of an innovation manager?

As we’ve discussed in some of our earlier articles, innovation managers operate in quite a complex environment with plenty of different stakeholders. Because innovation, by definition, is about creating something new, they also need to possess a wide variety of skills to be able to succeed at their job.

As the list is quite long, I thought it would make sense to first look at what the essentials needed to succeed at the job are, and then to dive deeper to understand what separates the best from the average innovation manager who’s just pretty good at what they do.

Requirements for being a good innovation manager

What makes an innovation manager good?

Large organizations always have plenty of processes and conflicting incentives in place that can often make it difficult for innovation to succeed. Navigating these challenges and finding ways to get past them is typically the number one skillset innovation managers need.

To succeed in this, they obviously have to be good communicators and good with people, but also need to understand the business extremely well, including the realities of how the practical day-to-day work and the related technologies function.

Large organizations have plenty of processes and conflicting incentives in place that can make it difficult for innovation to succeed. Navigating these challenges is typically the number one skillset for innovation managers.

As mentioned, innovation is the introduction of something new, which basically means making change (hopefully positive) happen. And that applies both at the level of an individual innovation, as well as the larger innovation culture within the organization.

So, for innovation managers to succeed at their job, the second essential skillset is to be good at managing projects and managing change.

While there are some differences, these two competences are ultimately very similar: they both require good planning and communication, as well as the management of different stakeholders and their expectations. In addition, you have to manage schedules and identify potential challenges and obstructions and find ways to get past them.

As long as you’re able to master these two skillsets, you’re basically guaranteed to be a pretty good manager regardless of the more specific task you’re responsible for, and the same applies for innovation as well.

Now, when it comes to innovation, the odds aren’t on your side. Thus, being average unfortunately means that you’re simply going to be very likely to fail, which obviously shouldn’t be something to aim for.

Requirements for being good:
  • Communication
  • People skills
  • In-depth knowledge about the business
  • Understanding technology
  • Project and change management

What, then, makes for a great one?

According to a well-known study by the recently passed Clayton Christensen et al., senior executives in the most innovative companies don’t actually delegate innovation and the creative work involved. They do it themselves.

So, to become a great innovation manager, and have a better likelihood of success, you actually need to be more than just an enabler, even if that is still the core of your job.


To become a great innovation manager, you actually need to be much more than just an enabler.

Great innovation managers are able to create a compelling vision and strategy for innovation within the organization and successfully lead others in that direction.

That obviously requires a great deal of strategic insight, insight into future trends and technologies, business acumen, as well as leadership skills and analytical thinking.

While innovation managers might not necessarily be doing all of the legwork involved in making innovation happen, they do need to pay a lot of attention to the details and must also take full responsibility for making sure that those who do, succeed.

This, in turn, requires skills and insight to support and challenge individual innovators and teams within the organization, many of which may be working on very different kinds of innovations.

Great innovation managers support and challenge innovators within the organization

In a recently published article on the MIT Sloan Management review, which is based on a decade long study of the top skills needed for innovation, this ability to understand all aspects of both business and technology, referred to as “omniscience”, was deemed as the most important one.

“Knowing it all” is obviously much easier said than done as the list of skills and capabilities needed are going to be very diverse, and also vary case by case. Still, that’s really a goal worth pursuing as it’s the core of what drives the success of the best innovators and innovation leaders.

There are, however, two more things that all great innovation managers have in common: an insatiable curiosity and hunger to learn, as well as mental toughness.

Curiosity is the fuel that fires the acquisition of all of the aforementioned skill sets, but also innovation in general. Mental toughness, on the other hand, is required to overcome all the critique and the many failures you will inevitably come across.

In addition to all of the aforementioned, there are also many other important factors, such as things like an entrepreneurial drive and ability to get things done, creativity, empathy, design, networking, as well as insight into many different industries and disciplines for reference, that we can’t go into more detail here.

What’s interesting here is that many of these attributes of the best innovators are often considered to be mutually exclusive.

You’re either a technical person or a businessperson. A creative, or an analytical. A doer, or a leader.

Many of the attributes associated with the best innovators are often considered to be mutually exclusive.

However, that’s exactly what sets the best innovators apart: their ability to solve problems and put the pieces of the puzzle together in a way that creates something new that is much more than just the sum of its parts.

Requirements for being great:
  • Insatiable curiosity and hunger to learn
  • Omniscience: deep insight into business and technology in different industries and disciplines, “to know it all”
  • Leadership: getting people to buy in on a vision
  • Analytical skills: ability to look at the world objectively through first principles thinking
  • Entrepreneurial spirit: Drive to get things done and not overanalyze since the analysis will be wrong anyway
  • Mental toughness and ability to overcome critique and failure
  • Creativity and empathy

The difference between good and great innovation managers

How to become an innovation manager

Unfortunately, there really isn’t a clear path in terms of formal training for the role of an innovator, or innovation manager, for that matter.

If we look at the greatest innovators of all time, many of them are self-educated or have dropped out during their studies. An advanced degree, thus, clearly isn’t a requirement.

Innovation doesn't require a degree

Having said that, a majority of the best innovators do seem to have backgrounds in science and technology. Thus, if you’re looking to choose between different fields of education, I would recommend studying engineering, but combining that with studies from other disciplines to broaden your thinking.

It is, after all, much easier for a computer scientist to learn about strategy than it is for a businessperson to learn about AI, for example.

According to the aforementioned study by Christensen, two thirds of the innovation skillset comes through learning. So, there are obviously things you can do to help set yourself on the right path, degrees aside.

First, you really have to read and internalize a lot of information. As mentioned, innovation is all about observing and knowing what’s out there and what’s possible, and then putting the pieces together.

That’s one of the key reasons why first principles thinkers like Elon Musk are so good at what they do.

For this, my recent list of top innovation books is a great place to start from. Some other resources that I’d highly recommend are HBR and Masters of Scale.

Best innovation books

Second, having an experienced innovator or innovation manager to learn from will help speed up your learning tremendously. So, if you know someone who fits the bill, try to get them to mentor or coach you.

In the end, just knowing the theory isn’t going to be enough. You really start to understand how vexing many of the challenges you’ve learned about are once you start trying to put these ideas into practice by yourself, and that point it’s great to have someone to reflect on these lessons with.

Research has shown that, on average, repeat entrepreneurs are far more effective than first time founders. At least in my experience, the same would seem to hold true for innovation in general.

So, in the end, the best way to learn to become an innovation manager is simply to move towards positions where you can start practicing the right skillsets and learn on job through both success and failure.

Innovation is often a grind

Conclusion

As mentioned, innovations come from combining existing ideas into brand new ones – and then finding ways to make them happen.

While that can often be very challenging in and of itself, getting innovation to succeed in a large organization where there are an endless number of stakeholders with different interests adds another level to it.

It’s important to remember that even if the best innovation managers and leaders are great innovators themselves, they must also take responsibility for creating systems, processes, and a culture where innovation isn’t dependent on just a few key individuals but becomes repeatable and scalable across the organization.

In the end, innovation is always going to be very difficult, and as such it probably isn’t a great career path for the faint of heart. As I recently wrote, most of the time it isn’t going to be “fun”.

However, if you’re willing to put in the work and face the inevitable challenges involved with it, it can be an extremely exciting and rewarding path where you can really make a difference.

If you’re willing to put in the work and face the inevitable challenges involved with being an innovation manager, it can be an extremely exciting and rewarding career path where you can really make a difference.

Best of luck for all of you who are pursuing a career in the field!

This article was originally published in Viima’s blog.

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Image credits: Unsplash via Jesse Nieminen

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Jesse Nieminen is the Co-founder and Chairman at Viima, the best way to collect and develop ideas. Viima’s innovation management software is already loved by thousands of organizations all the way to the Global Fortune 500. He’s passionate about helping leaders drive innovation in their organizations and frequently writes on the topic, usually in Viima’s blog.

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