Status Quo Leadership Is The Biggest Impediment To Innovation1 April, 2015 / Articles
If you’re looking for an innovation revolution in your organization, don’t look for more money or more places to spend money. Don’t look for activities or tactical interventions or things to do.
Look for heroes.
This was one of many suggestive outcomes derived from a data base of innovation ecosystems gathered at the recent Global Innovation Summit in San Jose, CA. Summit participants completed a “Rainforest Assessment” of their organization, following the model outlined in my and colleague Alistair Brett’s recent book, The Rainforest Scorecard. This assessment process measures innovative attributes of an organization across six domains: Culture; Leadership; Role Models; Frameworks, Infrastructure and Policies; Resources; and Activities and Engagements. We believe that our approach provides an empirical, holistic assessment of every feature of an organization’s culture with, and supports the creation of clearly defined, measurable strategies for improving innovation.
At the end of the Summit, we had gathered a total of 163 individual organizational assessments. Our colleague Fedor Ovchinnikov of the Institute for Evolutionary Leadership took an initial look at the data and found some interesting and provocative results. Three in particular stand out as critical to understanding innovation.
Balance Across Cultural Domains Is Critical To Innovation
For innovation to thrive in an organization, there is a need for all elements of the system to operate at an equally high level. Of course at various points in any organization’s life cycle certain features may dominate, especially in start-up situations. But in general, it is critical that organizations seek balance across all domains as outlined in the Scorecard process. The chart below shows that as balance increases, total innovation in the system increases, and it suggests that the inverse is also true: the less balanced a system, the less likely it is to be innovative.
An unbalanced system indicates that there is stress in an organization, and that various components may be working at cross purposes. Even more worrisome is the implication that in an unbalanced system, investments in individual components of the system — innovation activities, for example — can be dramatically under-optimized, and the under-optimization can actually escape detection. This preliminary finding suggests that a balanced system can be as much as 50.0% more innovative than one that is out of balance.
Even allowing for quite a bit of noise, the data would seem to show a clear, steady trend toward a more innovative state, as balance increases in the system. This suggests a number of key strategic considerations for those who are engaged in understanding and improving innovation. In particular, it would suggest that a focus on one-off, tactical interventions may actually impede innovation across an entire organization. Said differently, this finding suggests strongly that innovation is a function of alignment across a total organization, and that a focus on individual components at the expense of other components may very well operate as a negative.
Unbalanced Systems Bias Toward Leadership
A second and closely related finding addresses the potentially negative impact of strong, status quo-oriented leadership in an unbalanced system.
Taken in the context of the entire data set, this finding is provocative, and it merits a great deal more analysis. But initially it seems to suggest that powerful leadership, when dominant over the other cultural domains of innovation, is very likely to lead to an unbalanced organization — one which will consequently trend away from innovation. There is a great deal of nuance in the distinction between role models and leaders in the Rainforest Scorecard methodology, but even so this finding seems to alert us to a possible correlation between dominant leadership in a weak culture, and the absence of innovation.
The implications of this finding, if true, are profound. Among many other speculative conclusions, one could argue that when seeking innovation, leadership is more often the problem, rather than the solution, and this notion could in turn lead to some important questions. At the very least, it suggests that an equal focus on all domains of culture is necessary and critical if we are to optimize the contribution of strong leadership. As Fedor observed: “ Leadership can do more harm than good if it effectively reinforces conventional thinking , when in fact the whole culture needs to be redesigned.”
This claim deserves a great deal of reflection.
Role Models Drive Innovation More Than Resources
A third finding has to do with role models. We looked at the different results found when organizations placed an emphasis on acquiring or allocating more resources to innovation — including capital — compared to those who attracted, nurtured and supported role models and cultural features.
The implication is that as a general rule, the allocation of incremental resources into an organization will not drive innovation nearly as much as the increased presence of role models. Fedor notes that “resources can surely empower an organization, but it first has to be designed.” This observation can be extended to suggest strongly that the presence of strong role models will attract resource allocation at a rate that is more optimal than the reverse — allocating resources to attract or create role models. The message appears to be very clear: It is very difficult to buy innovation, but strong role models can influence innovation quickly, and with fewer resources than might be expected. Further, our analysis clearly shows that organizations that place more emphasis on resources than on role models consistently under-perform in the area of innovation. This seems to tell us that in the world of innovation, money is nice to have but role models are clearly better.
Although we must be careful in drawing conclusions that are hard and fast from a relatively small sample such as this, what we are finding is intriguing. If these findings hold up, we may be able to say with some certainty that the critical two-fold path to innovation is simply to rely on role models to draw resources, and to be mindful of the balance of cultural components of of organizations. Along the way, you might also want to beware of strong leadership that worships at the altar of the status quo.
Of course, things will never be quite that simple. Unless they are.