Think Leadership Ideas

The Performance-Innovation Dilemma

Part III
5 Leadership Actions to Navigate
the Performance-Innovation Dilemma

Leading for performance is very different from leading for innovation. And leaders must often manage both simultaneously. Whether by structure, process, assignment, or timing, leaders who are intentional about when, where, and how they are seeking innovation vs. performance are more likely to create exceptional outcomes.

Following are five actions that leaders can take to balance performance with innovation (note they invoke the five priorities of leadership discussed in previous THINK! articles).

Explicitly communicate the “mode” in which people should operate. For a given task or project, do you want people to focus on performance (do this as error free as possible), or on innovation (prototype creative solutions and learn from your mistakes)?

Differentiate structures to support both performance and innovation. Structures that promote performance are documented processes, defined functional units, and quality controls. Structures to promote innovation can vary from functional units dedicated to research or creativity (your own skunk works), cross-matrix structures, support for communities of practice, and special meetings and retreats that signal to people to step outside of performance routines.

Cultivate a culture that supports the right balance of performance and innovation for the endeavor. Culture is like the river current, carrying everything in a particular direction unless resisted. Culture guides what people will do by default. Savvy leaders pay great attention to shaping the organization culture so it supports expectations for both performance and innovation.

Hire and develop people for multiple roles. Be mindful and intentional in how your hiring and development processes support performance skills, innovation skills, or both.

Articulate the organization’s direction. Direction addresses the questions, “Why does your organization exist, where is it going, and how will it get there?” It is the job of leadership to articulate direction, by ensuring clarification and expression of an organization’s purpose, principles, and strategy. Ultimately it is clear articulation of direction that best resolves the creative tension between performance and innovation.


The Performance-Innovation Dilemma
Part I: What Leaders Must Know About Performance vs. Innovation
Part II: 3 Leadership Errors to Avoid
Part III: 5 Ways to Navigate the Performance-Innovation Dilemma

by Tom Stevens (c)2013
Tom Stevens helps leaders create and sustain exceptional organizations. To contact him, visit or call 919-245-1026

This article may be freely reprinted in your company, association, or publication (or website) under the following terms: that the author attribution, copyright notice, contact information, and this reprint notice be included; and that you inform us that you are using the article (samples appreciated).
Contact Tom for a pdf version of the article that includes all three parts.

THINK! Subscribers received this leadership article in PDF - FREE
You can too! Get this or similar articles immediately when you subscribe...get articles now

blog comments powered by Disqus