Monday, May 05, 2014

Innovation is a leadership skill

As some of you know, I wrote Relentless Innovation several years ago to highlight the challenges of introducing more innovation into companies that had focused for years on honing ever more efficient corporate processes.  After years of Right Sizing, Six Sigma, Lean, BPR and other management fads dedicated to improving processes, eliminating waste and improving efficiency, it can be a real struggle to try to introduce innovation.  The operating models, what I called "business as usual" resists change, uncertainty, variance and risk.

At the time I pointed the finger of blame at middle management, for causing much of the resistance to innovation.  Middle managers are the ones who make "business as usual" work, by doing the most with the least.  They assign resources, assess priorities, enforce formal and informal cultural norms.  They are responsible for hitting the numbers ever 90 days, and don't look favorably on programs or initiatives that distract their teams from achieving specific goals. 

But as I was mowing my lawn yesterday, I let my mind wander off on this topic.  Fortunately it came back, and came back with a simple yet profound insight.  Middle managers don't resist innovation simply because they think it detracts from business as usual.  Most middle managers don't have the training or capacity for innovation, because innovation isn't a "management" skill, it's a leadership skill.

Distinguishing management skills from leadership skills

Fortunately, plenty of people have written about the difference between management skills and leadership skills.   Some leaders are really managers who focus on getting things done.  Some managers are really leaders who can create a vision and lead people to greater achievements.

The "old saw" definition, or distinction, if you will, between managers and leaders is this:

Managers do things the right way, leaders do the right things

Here's another take:  it's the difference between counting value and creating value.

That's not to say that managers are only focused on following the rules or only focused on efficiency, but that's what most managers do every day, develop and reinforce rules and guidelines that help the organization become more efficient.  Leaders, on the other hand, should be focused on creating a vision and setting direction, doing the most important things, the "right" things, rather than constantly getting bogged down into doing things the "right way".

Why Innovation is aligned with Leadership

Think for a moment about the critical inputs  and success factors for innovation.  Innovation needs a burning platform, a big problem to solve or an opportunity to address.  It will require creating an as-is and a potential "to be" vision and sharing that with others.  Innovation will usually require getting people to step out of their comfort zone.  Creating a compelling vision, encouraging people to work and think differently, introducing some risk and uncertainty - these are the hallmarks of a true leader.  And, that leader may be a "small l" leader - a true leader not yet in a formal leadership position, or a "big L" leader, with a significant title.  But the factors that drive innovation success will be those that originate from people with leadership capabilities, who are comfortable on the edge, creating change, creating a vision and leading people to that vision.

Biblical Images

I can't help but place this debate in an almost Biblical context - the juxtaposition of shepherds and apostles.  Shepherds present classic "manager" thinking.  They are tasked with collecting and ensuring the safety of sheep, who are prone to wander, easily distracted, and barely able to care for themselves.  The shepherd is fair but firm, and sticks to familiar settings.  The shepherd's life is routine but occasionally dangerous, mostly from unexpected attacks from the environment.

The apostle, on the other hand, has a message and is intentionally sent out to deliver the insights to many people, creating passion and change.  The apostle stirs things up, disrupts the status quo, leads people to a new way of thinking.  The apostle's life is also dangerous, because they upset existing order and anger people who are comfortable in their current processes and patterns.

In this admittedly thin analogy, the managers are shepherds, keeping the people and processes in fine order, limiting options and focusing attention on what matters.  The apostles are leaders, trying to introduce new ideas and upset the dominant order to bring in new ideas or growth.  Which role does your organization emphasize?

Stop identifying good managers; start promoting good leaders

If you want more innovation, you need to rethink the reward systems and the types of people you promote.  Innovation requires at a minimum the "small l" leaders, people who can create a vision of the world as it could be, and rally people and resources to do interesting new work.  The leader doesn't have to have a significant title, but it doesn't hurt to have the support and backing of a "large L" leader. 

Trying to get a person who is a good manager, comfortable with existing processes and rules, to become an innovator can be difficult unless that manager also has strong leadership traits and capabilities.  These traits and capabilities aren't widespread, and in fact have been beaten out of much of the managerial class over the last 20 years.  If you want more innovation, develop more people who have more leadership capability.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:28 AM


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great blog. Lots of blogs like this cover subjects that just aren’t covered by magazines. I don’t know how we got by 15 years ago with just print media."

12:50 AM  

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