What makes for successful project group leaders?

What makes for successful project group leaders People whose objective is to address tough problems start with different issues. Projects of this kind require different characteristics for successful leadership.

The Gates Foundation starts with health issues; the Scottish Government’s CivTech programme starts with public service issues; MIT’s REAP programme and Village Capital in New York start with local or regional economic issues. They then find leaders and build teams to tackle those issues – an approach which is the opposite of the entrepreneur movement – which simply encourages individuals to develop new products or services.

But one of their biggest problems in starting with issues is that of finding leaders to head up these issue-based programmes. Above all else, such people must be experienced experts in their field, but it is unlikely that they will have experience of running innovation-centred programmes.

Singularity University (www.su.org), founded in 2009 and based at the Nasa Research Park in California describes its aim as to leverage new technologies, and work together to start companies to tackle the world’s biggest challenges. It is a community of entrepreneurs, corporations, development organizations, governments, investors, and academic institutions that runs an annual programme whose activities include custom educational experiences for leaders, conferences that inspire and prompt action, and innovative labs that incubate and accelerate corporate innovation and social impact projects.

If you are thrust into the leadership of a major innovation project, the approaches embodied in design company IDEO’s Design Thinking (www.interaction-design.org) may be relevant – based on these five skills:

  1. Observing:“Listen with your eyes” and discover what people really care about
  2. Stretch your thinking beyond assumptions and get to bolder ideas.
  3. Interviewing:Conduct interviews to get deeper, more honest responses.
  4. Immersive Empathy:Learn what it means to “walk in someone else’s shoes.”
  5. Sharing Insights:Craft compelling insights that will inspire innovation.

Steve Blanks’s I-Corps (Innovation Corps Are there any limits to the scope for Accelerators) runs a Boot Camp – a nine-week course designed to teach business skills to entrepreneurial scientists in technology-based startups – that has now been rolled out for biomedical firms as part of an experiment by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), and has recently been trialled by at least two organisations in the UK.

Its ruthless pitching tests have encouraged some of the participating organisations to change course; and others to search more assiduously for commercial applications of their science. “You can be a great researcher and you can think you have great ideas”, said one Congressman, “but until you’re forced to talk to a potential customer, you never really know.”

Research suggests that creative groups (addressing tough problems with big pay-offs) tend to be led by people who are visionaries – passionate and enthusiastic and sensitive to ‘process’, able to identify and bring together the necessary resources and the variety of talents, and then encouraging, orchestrating and supporting them, and protecting the group through its ups and downs. The research (Leaders of Creative Groups  also shows that they learn these skills primarily by experience – from one such project to another.

Scotland’s next generation of business leaders will benefit from entrepreneurial learning in a programme designed to develop future business leaders across all sectors – corporate, family businesses, the public sector and the third sector – delivered for the first time by Strathclyde Business School, led by Entrepreneurial Scotland in partnership with Babson College in Boston, USA – a world leader in entrepreneurial development (A heavy-weight investment in top entrepreneurial leaders.

The programme is for people who are at a turning point in their careers, aiming to become entrepreneurs: they may be starting a new business, entering an entrepreneurial business or joining a business that is looking to become more entrepreneurial.

It aims to instil entrepreneurial thinking and strategic leadership – by giving participants access to toolkits and techniques with an entrepreneurial perspective. The approach is described as facilitated learning: delivered by the business school faculty together with industry partners, with the help of mentors and advisers, and consisting also of networking and peer-to-peer learning.

Leaders of new ventures would surely find models like these useful, (as would policy makers) – whether they are designing their aeroplane on the way down from the cliff top, leading on a big problem that they have never before encountered in their life, or fostering innovation in the Hebrides or London.

John Whatmore, June 2018

 

 

 

 

 

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