Among the leadership traits which have made Steve Jobs so effective as an innovator has been the ability to create an inspiring vision for talented people to work towards and then get out of their way so that they could make full-use of their talents in pursuit of this vision. While he has always been associated with strong “top-down” leadership, much of it has been applied in the service of releasing innovative energies found towards the “bottom” of the organization. He was able to use his position of power within Apple to both energize innovation project teams, set them loose, and then, if necessary, protect them. The result was often that most magical of innovation outcomes, when the assembled talent believes that they have absolute freedom to apply their energies and skills, while senior management believes that it is in complete control; both at the same time! Jobs did this, with varying degrees of self-restraint in his involvement, with the Lisa, Macintosh and iPod projects, at least, and in each case not only changed the technical worlds of which they were a part, but also launched the careers of the next generation of innovation leaders in the industry. This partnering between a visionary senior executive, and a sort of renegade band of innovators, is not a new phenomenon, but while powerful, is often invisible, and frequently a “secret ingredient,” for those organizations savvy enough to support it, in the realization of successful innovation.
The future of innovation will be more important then ever, but most likely quite different from what we have thought of as “normal” innovation in the past. More important because as global population grows, available resources shrink, the environment worsens, and the business environment becomes more complex, we’ll need more innovation than ever to move human prospects forward.
We start with the sobering realization that the global economy is much more complex than any competitive terrain that we’ve innovated on before. In addition, the pace of change appears to be accelerating, as well. All in all, innovation will be more essential in the future, than it has ever been in the past, and at the same time, more challenging to do well!
The very nature of how we innovate will change. The old (and often misleading) stereotype of the single individual, or even small team, will fade as multi-site, multi-organizational, and multi-cultural collaboration becomes the norm. This will result in truly global approaches to idea-sharing, shaping and ownership that goes well beyond what we have mastered in the past.
We must recognize that few firms are prepared for this. They often lack the appropriate mindset, sufficient competencies, and even access to the necessary ideas, that this new innovation approach requires. Yet, if they limit their innovation activities to the confines of their own organization, they are condemned to under-achieve. Increasingly, we will be seeing that the potentials and weaknesses of our value-chains are as important as our own competencies, and building innovation partnerships up and down the value-chain will become an imperative. This, then, will require coordinating other peoples’ innovative assets, in a way that is more challenging than merely managing one’s own commercialization funnel.
We must build organizational “cultures” that treat ideas as the raw materials for building an organization’s future. That means idea-work must be recognized as a legitimate, and vital, part of what we’re all doing. It also means that the right attitudes are necessary, if we’re going to take knowledge and innovation seriously; and that processes need to be in place to assure that we are getting enough good ideas into the firm, and moving them to the right people in order to add value and bring about commercialization. We need to measure how much smarter we are as an organization, from year to year, and think about what investments need to be made to raise our return on brains.
Leadership must also change. The ideal is “smart people leading smarter people,” and the role models for this are those virtuoso performers who have inspired others to work beyond their normal aspirations. This is leadership as a contact sport, but the goal is for the knowledge workers to believe that they are working in absolute freedom, while leadership believes that it retains complete control.
Originailly written for "The Future of Innovation" project, 2009
Q: First off, why do you think there is much focus on innovation in the current business market? After all, innovation doesn’t necessarily guarantee success.
A: I think that there are several reasons for this. One is that we live in a time where there is major convergence among a wide range of disruptive innovations occurring across our economic landscapes: mobility, the internet, the internet of things, big data, a preference for personalization, distributed manufacturing, artificial intelligence, and the like. Each of these would be a major change in how we work and live on its own, but together they create a tsunami of change where innovation is at the center, as the engine driving fundamental disruption in nearly every aspect of our lives. No wonder that managers are caught-up in a thirst for applying innovation in their own businesses.
A second reason for the growing attention to innovation is that significant innovative change is occurring in many industries more frequently than ever before, making change more of a continuous phenomena than the traditional episodic character that was formerly ascribed to it. As change becomes more central to strategic decision-making, innovation becomes more important as a strategy choice.
Read more: Skills & Innovation (interview with Korea's Maeil Business Newspaper)
These are the new secrets of leadership success in a digital age, but, then again, this is also exactly what Christopher Columbus did, Vasco da Gama did, Henry Hudson did! For that matter, so did George Custer.
Heroes all, no doubt! But one was killed by the people he was looking for (Custer); one was abandoned by his team and left to die (Hudson); one found the wrong people, in the wrong place, called them by the wrong name, and never knew it (Columbus) and one returned having lost at least half his original crew, and then went on to a career that distinguished itself in mayhem and murder (da Gama). On such exploits, so our history was built.
What do all of these “heroes” have in common? They were all “discoverers.” They knew exactly what they were looking for, what they would find, and were possessed by such a high level of certainty about what they knew that they never asked the important questions that might have saved them from their eventual fates. The 20th century American historian Daniel J. Boorstin spoke of such discoverers as being finders: “[They] show us what [they] already knew was there”, and, while they may be necessary for succeeding in the present, this might not be the leadership style to take us into the future. Read more