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Photo: Camilla Stephan


Embracing a New Leadership Role for the Future: Mission Managers

03. Mar 2023

A new type of leader is emerging as major challenges have followed us to 2023. Complex issues like the climate crisis, health care crisis, and the workforce crisis – the so-called  ‘wicked problems’ – demand a new kind of leadership that is not internally rooted in individual organizations but leads from a whole new perspective

Long reads

Remember when innovation units were all the rage? In the early 2000s, when every major organization worth its salt established its own ‘lab’? At the time, it made perfect sense, as companies needed a boost of creativity and innovation. These labs were designed to unite a dedicated team with a single purpose – to challenge the organization’s status quo and introduce new approaches like user involvement, visualization, and co-creation.

I was privileged to lead MindLab, Denmark’s internal cross-government innovation unit for several years. It was an exciting time, and I saw firsthand how much of a difference our team made. We worked to break down the rigid structures, silo thinking, and inertia within society. Working primarily on citizen involvement, workshop facilitation, and concept development, we pushed boundaries and created new perspectives on complex challenges.

Setting up these labs was not just about assembling teams of innovative designers, anthropologists, policy and business developers, and data analysts. It was also about cultivating a new kind of leader: the innovation leader, manager, or director, who has the unique responsibility of activating team resources across the organization and collaborating with top management to bring innovative ideas to life.

This task was and still is, a very challenging one. 

At DDC – Danish Design Center, we recently analyzed how innovation team leaders in large, complex organizations handle their roles. The analysis shows that these leaders must balance challenging and maintaining the status quo, front and center. All of the innovation leaders found this challenging. “Dynamic navigation” is an apt term for this task.

However, one thing was easy enough in the role of innovation leader. Ultimately, their success depended on the success of the organization. From this perspective, the bottom line was simple.

Nevertheless, there is much to suggest that the role of innovation leader will become even more demanding in the future.

Conquering common challenges

Many companies still need skilled internal teams to address issues such as digital transformation, future growth opportunities, or strategic business development. At DDC, we host a network of innovation team leaders that have grown to about 30 companies in just a few years.

However, solving wicked problems requires different methods and management models, which implies the development of a new generation of labs and a new breed of leaders.

Individual organizations must be part of the solution, but they cannot be addressed within the organization alone or solved independently in other organizations. Instead, they have to be addressed from a ‘third place’. The key to solving complex, systemic, long-term problems across sectors and levels is to address them together.

"The key to solving complex, systemic, long-term problems across sectors and levels is to address them together."

Christian Bason


An excellent example is Ørsted’s CEO, Mads Nipper. He has publicly stated that the energy giant is happy to share knowledge and solutions with its competitors in some areas. Why? Because the market for offshore wind energy is not yet mature. So, for now, it’s about accelerating the transition through collaboration, not competition.

Another example is Naturli, Denmark’s leading plant-based food company. A few years ago, CEO Henrik Lund realized that the transition to a plant-based diet would require new partnerships, not only with the agriculture community, suppliers, and government agencies but also with competitors. To facilitate collaboration, Henrik Lund formed an association for them all – The Plant Industry – which now advocates and lobbies for transitioning to a more plant-based food industry.

A third example comes from the State Director of the City of Aarhus, Martin Østergaard Christensen. In a recent LinkedIn post, he emphasized that the municipality alone cannot tackle the current wicked problems, including labor shortages: “These problems affect everyone, concern everyone, and require collective action to maintain the high level of welfare in our society.” 

He also stressed the importance of “mobilizing citizens, relatives, and professionals not normally employed by the city government to help address these challenges.”

The three top managers genuinely understand that solving their company’s challenges requires a different approach to leadership, one that involves working with new partners and stakeholders across sectors.

Within a short period, they need to bring in the people and units to carry out this work, which may require the creation of new structures with shared ownership, similar to Naturli’s approach. And as a result, we need a new kind of leader. Not innovation managers, but mission managers who focus on achieving a long-term vision of change for a wide range of stakeholders instead of internal organizational development.

"We need a new kind of leader. Not innovation managers, but mission managers who focus on achieving a long-term vision of change for a wide range of stakeholders instead of internal organizational development."

Christian Bason


A trio of tasks for the mission manager

The role of the mission manager will be varied but will undoubtedly include the following:

A focus on sustaining the mission: getting up every morning to work for a long-term social impact that you are collectively responsible for and that requires broad mobilization around a complex problem area. This could be similar to a goal like the City of Aarhus in participating in the EU’s 100 Climate Neutral Cities mission to become climate neutral by 2030. 

Establish a legitimate governance structure: to achieve long-term impact, the mission manager must ensure that decision-makers can come together, gain insight, and make crucial decisions regarding the efforts that ultimately will lead to success with the mission. For instance, the green research mission in Danish agriculture, AgriFoodTure, led by Arla CEO Peder Tuborgh, has a highly competent board that needs support.

Ensure a competent management team and strategic project staffing: In a recent report, the OECD emphasizes the importance of strategic portfolio management in addressing wicked problems. To put it differently, the mission manager must ensure that all projects undertaken are consistent with the mission, regardless of their size or duration or high or low level of risk. The special responsibility of this role is to provide professional advice, create overviews, seek synergies, and, last but not least, create value chains that deliver tangible results that make a difference.

Beloved children have many names… (and tasks)

Being a mission manager is no easy feat. It’s even more challenging than being an innovation manager. With a larger landscape of interest, more plentiful resources, broader scope, and higher expectations, the job comes with increased complexity. 

"Being a mission manager is no easy feat. It’s even more challenging than being an innovation manager."

Christian Bason


Additionally, this new type of leadership role, the ‘next-gen lab’ role, must also have the ability to be a neutral actor who can develop, manage and involve all relevant stakeholders in the joint mission. 

The former Dutch minister and researcher Jacqueline Cramer calls the role a “transition broker” and has demonstrated in an article how a new leadership role is required to facilitate system change towards a green and circular economy.

As the Danish proverb says, beloved children have many names, which goes for mission managers, too. But one thing is sure: the future will require precisely this new type of leader to meet the many challenges ahead.


The article was first published on February 22, 2023, in Mandag Morgen. Read it in Danish here.

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