Innovation and leadership

By Mike Eldon

 I was asked recently to run a two-day workshop on innovation, within the Kenya Institute of Management’s Advanced Leadership Programme. So I had to ensure I was focusing my material appropriately – that is, to be relevant to directors and top management. As it happens, all but one of the participants were from the public sector, and they were as diverse in their personalities as in the organisations they represented: a ministry, state corporations, the Senate and independent commissions.

I am happy to reveal that they were without exception lively, interested, knowledgeable and focused Kenyans, all determined to do the best they could to see their institutions fulfill their respective mandates.

We started by exploring what creativity is – and how it contrasts with innovation. Here I quoted a really clever definition of the difference between creativity, or invention, described as “the conversion of cash into ideas”… and innovation, the “the conversion of cash into ideas”. For as founder of Atari Nolan Bushnell pointed out, “everyone who’s ever taken a shower has an idea. It’s the person who gets out of the shower, dries off and does something about it who makes a difference.”

I showered them with other wonderful one-liners on my subject, like this one from American financier and philanthropist Bernard Baruch: “Millions saw the apple fall, but Newton was the one who asked why”. And this from George Bernard Shaw: “Inspiration is a blank piece of paper” (plus, I would add, a deadline – not to mention that today he would replace the paper by a screen). Shaw also noted that “the reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround him. The unreasonable man adapts the surrounding conditions to himself.” All progress, he therefore concluded, depends on the unreasonable man.

To see that Shaw and Thomas Edison were soul-mates one only has to turn to Edison’s claim that “genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration”. Along with this shocking (reassuring?) assertion was his conclusion that before he stumbled on how to generate electricity he hadn’t failed – he “just found 10,000 ways that didn’t work”. Many of life’s failures, he reflected, are “people who never realised how close they were to success when they gave up”.

At the other end of the innovation spectrum we have the Luddites, the textile workers in England who, when the industrial revolution began in the 18th century, were so outraged by the possibility of losing their livelihoods that they began to destroy machines in the hope that they could banish technology. Their attitude lives on today, in the tea-pluckers who resist the introduction of infinitely higher productivity machines – and hence prevent us from being internationally competitive; the taxi drivers who want to wish Uber away; and the teachers’ unions, who merely agitate for more pay and more teachers, seemingly blind to the need for higher productivity and better results for their students.

Mention of Uber brings to mind Google, whose “Smart Creatives” combine technical depth with business savvy and creative flair. They are recruited and developed to use data imaginatively and usefully, and to look at old problems in a new light. They’re impatient risk takers, and not too concerned with process or recognition. Finally, they’re results focused, they enjoy being hands on, and they collaborate. Hm, reminds me of my days in the IT business, when we were after that rare species we called “hybrids”, who in addition to being techies where also commercially savvy and good at communicating.

When Lou Gerstner ran IT behemoth IBM he made it more agile and nimble. (Read all about his time there in his book, Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?)  Gerstner appreciated that a business needs both creative and managerial people, and that you don’t often find the two sets of qualities in the same person. He went beyond appreciating the need for both, mischievously commenting that “each must feel they are the saviour of the other”.

What qualities do you need to be innovative? Those that so many of our schools and universities crush out of our young people! Innovative people are above all curious, with a zest for exploration. They are restless and dissatisfied, energetic and enthusiastic, confident and courageous, obstinate and determined, ambitious and focused. They dare to risk (and so are prepared to fail), and they create linkages between ideas.

What is your organisation’s attitude to innovation?  Do you look for and support innovative people? Are high expectation the norm? (Like at 3M, where I remember at one time 80% of their products had to have been introduced in the previous three years.) Are innovators encouraged and recognised? Is continuous improvement assumed… or brushed aside and discouraged? Is there too much emphasis on compliance, conformity, controls and efficiency – those killers of innovation?

The hierarchical industrial society focused on the need for discipline, efficiency, reliability, repeatability, predictability, consistency and scalability. It had to develop systems, checklists, standards, constitutions and bye-laws; plus – more than ever now – over-specified Terms of Reference, Requests for Proposals and Job Descriptions.

But in today’s world of knowledge workers, who operate in flat pyramids and in loose, temporary networks, this excessive emphasis on efficiency and compliance has obliterated space for innovation. We have invested so much, management guru Gary Hamel suggested, “on what is as opposed to what might be” that people are scared to explore – from the board level to the shop-floor.

So what kind of atmosphere promotes curiosity, exploration and innovation? We must stretch our people, yet find ways of having them be sufficiently relaxed to allow for enough play, enough dreaming. Tough bosses too easily imagine that such a relaxed state of mind will lower standards and output, but the opposite is the intention: to enable people to come up with breakthroughs. For this we must be patient, flexible and trusting. We must encourage and empower and incent staff to collaborate with each other innovatively, and we must be the role models for what we wish to see.

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