When you think of scientific innovation, what image comes to mind? Is it a bunch white coats and goggles staring through microscopes in a lab? That’s not exactly how innovation happens. Not in life science, and I would argue not in any industry. To foster an environment where innovation can flourish, leaders need to focus on three things:

1. Attract the right talent

2. Create the right environment

3. Employ the right approach to leadership and management

Being a life science researcher and leader for over three decades has taught me a lot of lessons, mostly what not to do. However, as I’ve progressed in my career, I’ve gotten to see and discern what works.

The Right People

As Jim Collins points out in Good To Great — leaders who build great organizations focus first on who, then on what. What I’ve learned about the “who” in innovation is that you need a diverse collection of people who are curious and determined. Diversity is a key enabler of innovation — it helps see things differently and as a result do things differently. Innovation relies on different perspectives colliding and creating new ideas and approaches. But diversity is not enough, you need people who exhibit natural curiosity and willful determination. In life science we discover and then we try to apply what we’ve learned to create products that change the world. Discovery happens when curious people ask the right questions, and invariably while trying to answer those important questions, setbacks occur and things don’t work the first time — curious people without determination will just move on to the next idea — curious people with determination will solve problems and make great products.

The Right Environment

The right environment is comprised of two elements — physical space and culture. When we built a new, state-of-the-art laboratory, we asked our researchers what they needed to create an environment where they could innovate. Without hesitation, they recommended an open working space for easier collaboration, coupled with leading edge tools and laboratory spaces . As exacting as science is, the interpretation of it is where the innovation happens. And, that’s where communication and collaboration come in. We talk. A lot. An idea gets passed around the halls multiple times before it turns into a project, because no one of us is as smart as all of us. We try to create a lot of water cooler moments where the right people can connect in the right ways. Culture must also align and support the company strategy.

The Right Approach to Leadership and Management

There are many organizational design principles that could be used to define successful leadership/management practices. The three that I find most important are 1) Set challenging but achievable goals; 2) Leaders should be open, transparent and accessible; and 3) manage the balance of “ad-hocracy” versus bureaucracy.

Setting challenging but achievable goals, engages the best people to show up and deliver the best effort. We always want some stretch in our objectives, as it forces us to learn more effectively, collaborate more purposefully, and set a new standard to build on for the future.

Being a leader of scientists and innovators, you create your greatest following when you’re open, transparent and accessible. Really smart people are the best innovators, and really smart people listen very carefully and often have very important things to say and ideas to contribute.

I think the most important management discipline in leading scientist innovators is to get the balance right between “ad-hocracy” and bureaucracy. We need to have planning discipline, but in science, things don’t go according to plan and then you must adapt — you make an ad hoc, call it entrepreneurial determination and adjust. But, we can’t just “wing it” completely, as R&D can get expensive chasing every idea, and we’re also a regulated business. So, this is where good organization, planning and process come in to make the most important tasks easier to do.

It sounds straightforward, but bringing together the right people in the right environment and leading and managing the right way is challenging and often difficult to sustain. The best companies showcase this precious mix and serve their customers in the most distinctive ways. It’s not random, they have leaders who understand these concepts and put them to work every day.

Later in November, I’ll be sitting on a panel at the 2017 Indiana Agbiosciences Innovation Summit colleagues and I will be sharing insights into creating a vital innovation ecosystem. If this topic intrigues you, I hope you’ll join and participate.

Aaron Schacht is the Vice President of Global Research and Development / Regulatory Affairs at Elanco Animal Health. He previously held the role of Global Brand Development Leader – Pain in Lilly Biomedicines.  

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