Innovation Leadership Issues July 2015

There is a very large difference between leadership and management. Although leaders often tend to need to manage as well, at times they can delegate this responsibility away to stay focused on leadership. Of course leaders do have to work hard to manage themselves, which can be difficult especially in the opportunistic phases, where projects or initiatives getting underway usually have more unknowns than knowns.

There are intrinsic conflicts between innovation and management. Innovation demands maximal degrees of freedom and management demands risk aversion. Innovators need to be rewarded for taking chances. Often, managers are rewarded for not taking chances. Also it is very difficult for a creative person to be inspired by a person who has very little power to change trajectory, which necessarily is often the case for managers, especially middle managers who can be terrified of the crazy-making innovators exhibit.

Crazy-making you say? Yes. Lets put it another way, rational human beings usually accept the world around them and try very hard to work within its constraints. Then the are those who seem to be somewhat allergic to the status quo, and who at every turn are noticing ways to make “improvements”. These “improvements” usually require change. Sometimes, change alters the balance of power, or schedule, or budget – all activities which usually get a manager reprimanded. So innovators do tend to frighten control freaks because they are not very controllable.

Of course there are excellent organizations built upon “Innovation Cultures” where innovation is very much supported and that makes all of the difference. Having had the good fortune to spend fifteen years working at Bose and then at Apple, I got to spend many of my professionally formative years, within two very strong corporate innovation cultures. These were, and are, excellent training grounds for innovation leaders, even though as a younger crazy-making person, I always wanted to go faster and change more than was possible. Fortunately both Apple and Bose were on the lookout for new ideas, and tried to accommodate people who passionately wanted to move toward the future. When trying to convince Amar Bose one day of my desire to pursue developing a new product idea I had right now, because of the narrow “window of opportunity”, he laughed and said when he founded Bose there were already 75 speaker companies and now there were 300 and Bose Corporation was worth almost all of them combined because in everything we did we had to strive to be unique and to be the best.

A company’s culture tremendously reflects the founder’s values, especially when the founder(s) is still alive. Amar Bose and Steve Jobs were all about innovation and tended to only hire people who also felt that way. Only time can tell how well these values ultimately stick as companies scale up to having thousands of employees.

Companies like HP have not fared as well in this dimension, as they could have, under several new leaders that not nearly as embracing  of innovation as Dave Hewlett and Bill Packard, even though one of them integrated the word Innovation into their logo tag line, put it on the signs outside their buildings, and has declared “Innovation is Priority One at HP”. New management locking the parts lockers that engineers previously could raid for any project – authorized or not certainly stifled innovation, as many new product ideas came from unapproved projects. Neither Bill nor Dave would have permitted this creativity repression as they explicitly created an innovation culture and when one of them I forget which discovered a lock on the parts room, he went and got a bolt cutter and cut it off.

Innovation is much more about audacity, and failing forward, than about tag lines and signs. Innovation is a stance about how to to be in the world every day, and is always adapting to the present moment. It is not something that is scheduled by declaring this year “lets be innovative”. Innovation DNA and Innovation Vitality are intrinsic, and as such not very subject to being turned on or off any more than than you can declare this year “I will become a curious person”. People are either curious or they are not. And if they are not, they are not going to make very good innovators, innovation leaders or innovation advocates.

Innovation is a completely natural response for all of us, until or unless it is beat out of us, usually by someone older than we are when we are young. When a creative person has the good fortune to be raised by parents who support them acting upon their insights, they can become somewhat inoculated to the resistance they will likely experience as they enter the work force unless they have the good fortune to join one of the rare companies with an innovation culture.