Innovation is a C-word

There are incredible opportunities today to bring new things into the world. It is the hallmark of the creative artist to create something that did not exist before, but this generative capacity is not limited to creative artists. Entrepreneurs and corporations conceive and create new products, services and platforms that would not have existed but for their efforts. Our increasingly complex and volatile world needs this creative ability now more than ever, especially in our leaders.

So how well do we understand this ability? What competencies are required? Is the best training ground business or design? Should our leaders seek out a B-School or a D-School? Maybe it is something in between: a C-School, a school where creativity and C-suite leadership blend, a place of learning that accelerates innovation leadership and the creative process in entrepreneurs and corporates, with leaders from the private, public, and social sectors.

Understanding innovation leadership means understanding creativity. Few of us create alone today. As Keith Sawyer shows in Group Genius, there is a persistent myth of the lone inventor, of the great genius slaving away in obscurity. But this is, indeed, a myth. Innovation usually comes from group interaction, from cross-fertilization between team-members and from rapid feedback cycles. Creativity happens in teams. As Pixar Animation Studios President Ed Catmull points out, the team is even more important than the idea. A great team will either turn a mediocre idea into a great movie or jettison it, but a mediocre team will waste a great idea (see Ed Catmull, How Pixar fosters collective creativity). A great team can start with an average idea and be creative on the way, changing it as they go along.

Innovation is the combination of the development of a concept for a new product, service or business, and the subsequent realization at scale. There are two big stages in this process: Concepting and Realization. Concepting consists of generating an innovative idea or concept and describing it. Realization consists in giving birth to this innovative idea or concept. Innovation leadership means knowing both stages in detail and being able to navigate them for success.

The Concepting stage is a flow

At THNK, the Concepting stage is an iterative continuous flow of four phases: Sensing, Visioning, Prototyping and Scaling. The Sensing phase consists of a wide exploration of the topic, combining rational analysis with an intuitive and associative process of gathering insights. This includes observing the user in their natural habitat, rethinking one’s assumptions and engaging with the user. The Visioning phase consists of reframing the issue and ideating a new concept that is distinct, bold, and appealing, through synthesis, visualization and articulation. The Prototyping phase centers on repeated experimentation, user testing and feedback with the aim of testing one’s assumptions to improve the concept. Strictly speaking it could have been called “polytyping”: coming up with version after version and constantly learning from failure.

Scaling, the final phase, is about designing for scalability. Scalability means different things in different contexts. Scalability at the individual level is the ability to have impact beyond one’s own reach. At the organizational level it is an idea that spreads quickly and gets adopted by many. At the enterprise level it is a concept that can be multiplied at little or no additional cost.

Innovation leadership aims for a concept to be designed for maximum potential scale. These are often concepts that are digital/online as much as possible: online courses are more scalable than schools. Scalable concepts are based on do-it-yourself tools: selling recipes is more scalable than running a restaurant. Scalable concepts are based on viral marketing and advocacy instead of advertising. Scalability translates directly into business performance. The most precious case of a scalable concept is one that feeds on itself over time. A commerce platform – stock exchange, online market place, buying cooperation – offers ever better deals when it attracts more volume and members. Concepts that are enriched by usage, e.g. a search engine or a recommendation system, become more valuable with market penetration over time. These concepts exhibit winner-take-all dynamics; over time the difference between the largest player and the smaller competitors increases and so a de facto standard materializes.

The Concepting Flow has many iterations: going back to sensing, sharpening the vision or starting anew, endless prototyping, while always keeping the scaling dimension in mind. We need to be willing to explore iteratively.

What are the key competencies required of innovation leadership in concepting? The passion and purpose to go on a disciplined pursuit towards a great invention. An explorative mindset to free-associate, let go of our presuppositions, to see connections between disparate fields, know where to look for signs and weak signals. The ability to envision a better future and to engage others in it. And the ability to attract and orchestrate great teams. At THNK every participant is coached by a leadership coach on these core competencies of the Creative Leadership Model.

Having a concept is already much more than just having a good idea or a new technology. Innovation leadership can use the Concepting Flow to ensure that a concept has been developed from real needs and that it has been refined to be workable through feedback from real users. But it still isn’t an innovation. For that it needs to be realized.

Realization: Incubating, Building and Accelerating

Concept development without successful realization can be a huge missed opportunity. Xerox invented icon-based computer interfaces but Apple and then Microsoft implemented them and became giants. Kodak invented the digital camera but never implemented it and has now gone bankrupt. Generating and prototyping a fantastic product is only the first part of the journey.

Too much emphasis on innovative ideas and on conception may give us a lopsided view of what innovative companies do.

Furthermore, too much emphasis on innovative ideas and on conception may give us a lopsided view of what innovative companies do. Indeed, the process of creation does not depend solely on having an innovative idea. Ideas can be found elsewhere. One can find a successful product and release it in a new territory, as Red Bull did when it marketed a Thai energy drink to Western tastes. Many successful companies have based their product on the modification of already existing concepts.

So innovation leadership also means bringing something tangible into the world. Where there was only an idea, there is now a product or service. A great idea does not magically translate into a fantastic product, whatever the creative may think.

Again it is useful to distinguish stages in this realization process. This helps innovation leadership be realistic about progress and especially about what resources and successes are needed to ensure that progress. At THNK we divide the Realization stage of innovation into three distinct parts: Incubating, Building and Accelerating.

The Incubating stage moves from concept to first customer, i.e. to the moment the resulting product or service is bought or taken up by a first customer. This stage typically involves pitching to boards, future customers, suppliers and financiers. It also includes piloting.

The Building stage moves from first customer to company, i.e. to the moment that the product or service can be delivered with repeatable quality. This stage includes a relentless drive for operational excellence and focus on customer satisfaction, the introduction of core processes, and growing the organization from a team to a professional organization, leaving behind some of the garage culture.

Creativity is not limited, as is often thought, to the Concepting stage.

The Accelerating stage takes off when the company has its fundamentals in place, so when it is ready to scale.

Creativity is not limited, as is often thought, to the Concepting stage. It is required in Incubating, Building and during Accelerating. For instance one needs creativity to pivot, which may happen in the Incubating or even Building phase. Pivoting refers to drastic format changes as a result of critical feedback or a newly discovered opportunity. Successful new ventures typically pivot at least two times before launch. An Internet start up that already had funding for a podcast business discovered another idea during the Incubating stage. When iTunes also started offering podcasts they decided to re-allocate their funding and pivot to this new idea – which became Twitter (“All is fair in love and Twitter”, New York Times Magazine, October 2013).

What are the key competencies needed in the different Realization phases: Incubation, Building and Acceleration?

When pitching and piloting in the Incubation stage innovation leadership needs to be competent at articulating their concept and storytelling. At THNK we train leaders in telling stories that move to act: getting the essence across and engaging people emotionally so that they take action. Innovation leadership further requires the paradoxical competency of being steadfast and flexible at the same time to deal with and benefit from unpredictability. It includes being able to hold firm to the essence of one’s vision while being adaptable where needed on the form, mastering the execution cycle (Act, Learn, Improve) in uncharted territory with imperfect information and limited control. Creativity is thus critical during the Realization stage.

When building a team, innovation leadership means giving special attention to casting the team members. This means attracting and engaging team members who raise the caliber and diversity of the team. It means finding people who have the capability to challenge and change. As innovation needs creativity all the way through the process, innovation leadership means casting teams that can be productive and continue to change things.

In Accelerating, a key innovation leadership competency is preparing innovations to scale in a non-linear fashion. Through taking advantage of the properties of networks, waves or emergent behavior the aim is to work toward a tipping point where the innovations spread rapidly, seemingly self-propelled and with relatively little effort, resulting in an outsized impact.

Many paradoxical competencies are required of innovation leadership in the Realization stage: on the one hand, the capacity to focus, to keep an unwavering direction, to be as monomaniacal as an artist. On the other hand, the capacity to let go, to be flexible, to change one’s mind when needed. The grace to do this quickly, without bemoaning the time and effort invested in the idea. Being able to combine leading from the front with leading from behind: being able to switch between these and knowing when to do so is the mark of capable innovation leadership.

It appears the Renaissance man is back, or at least the need for one is: a leader who can bridge various disciplines and bring different types of creativity and leadership to the different stages of an innovative venture. Does the world have enough of these leaders? Where can leaders go to improve their innovation leadership abilities? If innovation is a C-word because it requires creativity throughout and C-level leadership at all stages, then that place, perhaps, should be a C-school.

The C-school approach


Innovation is composed of two necessary and complimentary aspects: concepting and realization. A C-school strengthens key competencies that innovation leadership requires in these two stages, and enables the Concepting flow as well as the Realization stage. So what is the difference with a B-school or a D-school? A Business school focuses on management excellence. A Design school focuses on product design. A C-school in contrast focuses on innovation excellence and on business model design. It spends significant time on innovation leadership development and promotes a highly entrepreneurial mindset. THNK is such a C-school. Its executive program brings together a diverse group of leaders who learn by working on big societal challenges and also accelerate an innovation project of their own.

C-schools also include elements of Architecture schools, Engineering schools and Technology institutes. One role model of innovation leadership is the architect Ben van Berkel, a THNK Advisory Board member and visiting faculty. He combines the aesthetic sensibility of making stunning landmark buildings with a deep understanding of the scientific approach, modeling people flows and usage data. Inspiration and understanding go hand in hand.

THNK supports innovation leadership in strengthening the competencies needed to generate new ideas and turn them into a viable start-up or innovative company project. The Executive program accelerates the concepting of innovative ideas and the creative realization process of making them happen in the world. This is our way of responding to today’s needs by making use of today’s opportunities, and our contribution to changing the world.


  • Catmull, Ed. “Innovation at Pixar”, Harvard Business Review, September 2008.
  • Johnson, Michael B.THNK forum sessions June 2012 and June 2013.
  • Gressel, Noam. THNK forum session March 2013.
  • Johnson, Michael B. THNK forum sessions June 2012 and June 2013.
  • Sawyer, Keith. Group Genius, Basic Books, New York 2008.
  • “All is fair in love and Twitter”, New York Times Magazine, October 2013.
  • Image: Colours of Life from

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