The Operational and Creative Mindsets in Innovation Portfolio Management

Problem: Innovation leaders need to balance Operational and Creative mindsets, but it’s easy to overemphasize one.

Action: Answer 10 questions to review and calibrate your practices and metrics.

As an innovation leader, you have to enable creativity and exploration while ensuring rigor and discipline—you need both the Creative and Operational mindsets.

The Operational mindset seeks constant improvement. People who lead with the Operational mindset emphasize efficiency and want to minimize variability. They’re comfortable with quantitative data and can break any problem down into its component parts.

The Creative mindset seeks constant discovery. People who lead with the Creative mindset thrive amidst change and the unexpected. They’re comfortable with qualitative data and make connections where others do not.

Strengths of the Two Mindsets

We all have a natural leaning, but overemphasizing one mindset can create problems.

Neither mindset is inherently better for an innovation role, and there is lots of potential overlap. The Creative values quality and discipline, and the Operational values ingenuity and problem solving. But just like having a weak side of your body can cause pain or injury, overemphasizing one mindset can hurt innovation efforts. We often find clues to the dominant mindset in innovation measurement systems.

Leaders and organizations overemphasizing the Operational mindset may be less flexible. They might resist the changes in approach or metrics that teams need over the course of front-end projects (those in which you’re figuring out what to make for whom). They might measure adherence to budget and schedule but not learning, the most important output of any innovation project. They may view the primary function of their measurement system as monitoring but neglect its function for communication and buy-in.

Those that overemphasize the Creative mindset may not have metrics at all. If they do, they likely favor measuring activity related to innovation capabilities (think # employees trained) over innovation performance. They might go through the motions of tracking and reporting progress, but don’t really change behavior based on their metrics. And they, too, struggle with communication. People overemphasizing Creative may not translate their results into the first language of different stakeholders, like the C-suite or certain business unit leaders. 

So balance is key. As is the case with the body, you have to make an extra effort on the weak side to even things out. As someone who leads with Creative mindset, the creative comes more naturally to me, so I have to work a little harder on the operational. I spend more time reading about quantitative analytics. I set objectives and key results for my exploratory work. I seek out collaborators who lead with the Operational mindset.

Action: Review and calibrate your practices and metrics.

Not sure which of the mindsets you’re leading with? Consider the following questions.

  • ­Do you allow for changes in approach and metrics, as teams learn or strategy evolves?
  • ­Do you measure learning?
  • ­Did you involve your team and other stakeholders in the selection of key metrics?
  • ­Do you treat cycle time (e.g., idea to market) differently for front-end projects?
  • ­Do you have too many metrics? (check: can you articulate what decision is made based on every metric you track?)

You (or your organization) might be overemphasizing the Operational mindset if you answered “no” to any of those.

Now consider these:

  • ­Do you measure innovation performance?
  • ­Do your metrics track inputs, outputs, and outcomes?
  • ­Do you track alignment with strategy?
  • ­Are your teams really using your metrics? (check: can they tell you what behavior changes based on each metric you track?)
  • ­Are you able to report your metrics in ways that are meaningful to multiple audiences (e.g., your team, BU leaders, and the CFO)?

If you answered no to any of those, you might be overemphasizing the Creative mindset.

To calibrate, review your “no” answers and identify what you’d change to get to “yes.” And look for more resources on balance from us in the coming weeks. If you want help sooner, email me. We’d be glad to do a quick review of your current practice/metrics and provide some recommendations for better balance given your goals and portfolio mix.

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