Published 01. Feb. 2017

On Leading Innovation: Adapt, Spin Out, Put on Hold, Discard

Dr. Mikko Laukkanen is the Academic Director at Aalto University Executive Education. He's done his doctoral thesis on innovation and failures to innovate. He's also a frequent lecturer on innovation management and related topics in Aalto EE programs.
Innovations and R&D

creative mess

According to Dr. Mikko Laukkanen, Academic Director at Aalto University Executive Education, there are three innovation trends in the executive education and professional development sector. First, digitalization continues to offer new opportunities for both delivery and design on education programs. Second, customers and business clients in the sector continue to demand more evidence of the true impact of education and development initiatives, forcing companies to innovate new ways of measuring and communicating the value of services. Third, there’s a tightening in schedules for training and development programs and desire for concrete results, which drive higher degrees of customization among the programs offered to client firms.

“The innovation challenge is to merge the three trends in a way that creates a unique value for clients in a very competitive environment,” the Director states.

Leadership, Storytelling, and Collaboration

“The key to getting people excited about new innovations is storytelling,” says Laukkanen, “success will depend on how you can tell a story around the new value offered by the innovation. Illustrating how the innovation will be used and how it will improve people’s experiences and outcomes is key. Using storyboarding, customer journeys, and videos are good ways of improving your odds at success.”

As for cross-level and cross-organizational innovation leadership characteristics, the Academic Director shared the following:

  1. Inclusiveness – Start with defining innovation as being the responsibility of just about everyone in the organization, not only those in formal R&D functions.
  2. Clarity – Leadership needs to set the broad context in which the organization will innovate and operate – this isn’t about confining ideas and putting people in a box, but rather giving a starting point for innovations.
  3. Autonomy – Leaders must be able to create enough slack in the organization to allow people to innovate and protect emerging new innovations from being over-run by existing ways of operating.
  4. Tolerance – Instill a culture of tolerance for smart failures (where something interesting is learned from the failure).
  5. Agility – Be quick and direct to avoid falling into limbo – either adapt, spun out, put on hold, or discard. The old way of leading creative organizations – hiring hard, managing soft, firing hard – can be adapted to leading innovations. Leaders should set the context and structure for innovations, then let people go at it in their own way, and make the hard decisions about the future of new innovations.

With the increase in innovation pace, customers and partners need to be brought in earlier into the process, “Feedback needs to be collected at the planning and development stages to ensure that the innovation lines up with customer needs. It’s not viable that new innovations are developed without customer feedback or collaboration, and then rolled out once finalized. The traditional boundaries between organizations are also disappearing, so the same organization may be a partner in one context and a competitor in another.”

Embracing the New

“Digital technologies allow for entirely new ways of interacting with people and delivering content,” says Laukkanen, “and from a process perspective, they allow for co-creation and collaboration even if not physically in the same place. The technical developments also increases the general pace of innovation and exacerbates the innovation imperative.”

As for new entrants, “They’re great at challenging existing structures and taken-for-granted assumptions about how things should be done in an industry. They are also, of course, usually faster at trying new things and launching new offerings. Established companies should learn how to push beyond perceived industry boundaries and learn how to operate with smaller and flatter organizations.”

On which sectors will produce the next biggest innovations, “They will come from sectors that have thus far been allowed to keep operating in very traditional ways. Disruptions are likely to be seen in energy, finance, and healthcare. Developments in these sectors will change the way the world in much more significant ways than a service that allows people to rent their apartment to a stranger.”


Aalto University Executive Education Ltd will be attending the 600Minutes Executive HR in Finland on the 1st of February 2017 as a solution provider. Event themes include:

  • Business Transformation – New Requirements for Leadership and Organizational Culture
  • Talent Acquisition and Retention New Rules on the Battlefield
  • HR as a Strategic Partner for Growth and Value Creation
  • HR and Talent Analytics – Measuring the Performance and Productivity of Employees
  • Occupational Well-being as a Success Factor of the Organization
For more upcoming events, visit the Event Calendar »