My colleagues at Bacharach Leadership Group and I, working with a number of clients in a variety of industries, from technology companies to universities, have been able to examine organizational innovation from many different perspectives.

The more we became immersed in organizational innovation, the more it became clear to us that a critical component of successful innovation is how groups are led. To a large degree, a given group’s innovation capacity is dependent on the group’s leadership. That is, what becomes important is how one leads "hot groups"-;that is, those unique entities that serve as incubators of true innovation. First described by Harold J. Leavitt and Jean Lipman-Blumen, a hot group is a “lively, high-achieving, dedicated group, usually small, whose members are turned on to an exciting and challenging task.”

While hot groups have commonalties with teams, they differ in that hot groups are more dedicated and focused on a specific target or aspiration. They operate without hierarchy and are often diverse and meet sporadically and multiple locations. Moreover, hot groups possess the freedom to think beyond organizational best practices or industry trends and dare to push the envelope. Hot groups aren’t trying to complete organizational or business objectives, they are busy engaging in blue ocean thinking.

Hot groups start, more often than not, when ideas are shared and discussed informally. When these ideas build momentum they naturally attract people from across business units, industries, and different fields. The ideas are then discussed, honed, and developed and result in prototypes.

Leaders can develop an innovation culture that encourages hot group formation, but they can’t force the first collaborative spark. Hot groups form naturally, but they need to be nurtured by leaders. It is a leader’s important job to ensure that once a hot group starts to coalesce, that it not only survives, but flourishes.

To do so, innovation leaders must do the following four things:

  1. Mentor: Leaders must always ensure that those they lead have the freedom and the confidence to be creative and establish hot groups. Leaders must create an environment of safety where ideas can be shared openly and where failure is not only tolerated, but celebrated. Leaders must encourage those they work with to question routines, habits, and processes and share their thoughts publically. They must create spaces where interactions can happen and ideas can be shared.
  2. Patron: A leader must do her best to sponsor hot groups once they have been organized and provide not only resources but also time. A leader must be aware of and share information that could be valuable to the group, and provide access to any tools that may be necessary.
  3. Manage: Work still needs to get done and not every minute can be spent thinking of the next big thing. It is a leader’s job to ensure hot group members are not only participating in their hot groups, but also performing key duties. But a leader must also manage those not in the hot group. Those who are not part of the hot group must still be made to feel valuable and important-;and that the hot group shouldn’t be more “special” than the rest of the team. A leader must recognize everyone’s value and role and encourage everyone at all levels.
  4. Mobilize: Hot groups may come up with innovative ideas, but in an organizational context the work of the hot group may attract resistance, naysayers, and doubters. As a leader you have to shield hot groups from larger organizational pressures. Hot groups don’t need the added stress of a steady stream of criticism and gloomy news. An effective hot group leader must ensure that others in the organization understand the hot group’s importance and impact. The leader must sell the hot group in others in the organization to ensure its momentum.

Remember that innovation doesn’t always happen in isolation-;and it is not always the result of a solitary Eureka! moment. After all, the most innovative companies in the past few decades, Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Intel did not depend on the hard work and tenacity of just one person, but rather a team working together-;and a team that could be characterized as a hot group, with a strong leader.

Published on: Sep 29, 2015
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.