Have you heard of Kelly Johnson? Perhaps not. But have you heard of Lockheed U-2 and SR-71 Blackbird – two of the most sophisticated fighter jets from Lockheed Martin, the maker of F-16 aircrafts? Most likely, yes. Kelly Johnson ran Advanced Development Projects (ADP) at Lockheed for decades and gave America its first fighter jet capable of Mach 2. However, the most famous of his creations was ‘Skunk Works’, the team that he so passionately ran and, whereby, made one of the greatest contributions to ‘managing innovation’. The term ‘Skunk Works’, used to refer to small, self-managed teams that mostly operate under the corporate radar and delivers technology breakthroughs, is replete in most management conversations, globally. Kelly famously laid down the 14-rule of managing (innovative) teams, which are as relevant today as they were almost half-a-century ago.
How about Geoff Nicholson? He’s another one of those organizational geniuses who marshaled an idea through the organizational toxicity and made it into a world-famous product – the 3M’s Post-it notes. Based on a failed invention, which 3M dubbed as ‘a solution looking for a problem’, the Post-it notes were originally conceived by the duo of Art Fry and Spencer Silver, but the ‘failed idea’ would have gone nowhere but for the stewardship of Nicholson. In Nicholson’s words, ‘every great new product is killed at least three times by managers.’ These are just two of the rather famous examples.
As a leader, it's not about innovating, as much as enabling innovation and protecting those who innovate from organizational toxicity
In India, we had Vikram Sarabhai, and Satish Dhawan of ISRO who inspired the likes of APJ Kalam and India’s Moon and Mars missions. We have MS Dhoni and Rahul Dravid who are inspiring a young crop of players, and not just in cricket, beyond their individual excellence. And more honestly, we see them all the time around us, albeit in the background. When it comes to innovation and change, often playing the ‘enabler’ role is far more important than being a symbol of change, or being in front and center; and that’s where I propose that (real) leaders don’t innovate, but protect those who innovate. The key operative here is ‘protect’, and this calls for some explanation.
As one moves up the organizational totem pole, the graduation happens, in essence, from doing to directing and then to enabling. From a bias-for-action, the temperament has to shift to a bias-for-thought, for the skills which were highly useful so far are suddenly not as much valuable, if not entirely counterproductive. In a way, the core-competence becomes core-rigidity as one attempts to secure a greater role. An expert engineer doesn’t make a competent manager, or that a specialty doctor seldom makes for an able medical superintendent; the task is different, the ask is different. From being a creator and a ‘problem solver’, the role evolves into the one that offers psychological safety, enables resource leverage, and draws on rich experience to increase the odds of success. Let’s discuss in detail.
Offering psychological safety
Innovation is a venturesome affair. The odds of success are relatively low, and risks are typically personal in nature, and that’s why the very deed remains elusive. The status quo is like a drug – it has its own inertia and a high exit barrier for the addict. The leaders must offer a safety net for people to take risk and fail, such that they can bounce back and fail often to succeed sooner.
The ‘Medal of Defiance’ at HP is one of the most known ways of encouraging psychological safety at the organization. In the words of the company’s legendary founders Bill Hewlett and David Packard, “the greatest success goes to the person who is not afraid to fail in front of even the largest audience”. And they had in place robust routines and policies to enable failure, such that they can foster a culture of innovation. Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple, used to work at HP and deems his experience at HP that fuelled his imagination and work ethics towards engineering and product design as the harbinger of great work at Apple1. He talks about the open culture, free-flow of ideas, and a belief that an idea can come from almost anywhere – notions that made HP one of the hottest companies in Silicon Valley to work for several years. India’s Tata Group identifies failed innovations and shares learning therefrom through the ‘Dare to Try’ Awards as a part of Tata Innovista — the Group’s annual innovation event2. The key for the leaders and not just the founders is to offer an assurance to the employees that it’s okay to fail, and that failure is not personal.
Innovation is a venturesome affair the odds of success are relatively low and risks are typically personal in nature, and that's why the very deed remains elusive
Enabling resource leverage
In any organization of any size, there are always a set of critical-to-compete resources in scarcity. Even at Google or Microsoft, there could be only a finite number of resources, both inside and outside the company, to tap into for critical tasks. Most ideas then die as they fail to secure crucial resources at crucial moments. One of the most important being the ‘attention of senior management.’
Ideas, talent and capital – the three ingredients of innovation have largely become democratized, of late. Thanks to the Internet, rapid globalization, and the ensuing information symmetry, there is no reason to believe that an organization can hold on to critical resources for far too long. However, the attention of senior management on which ideas to bet on over others remains a very critical one, and the innovation champions (read real leaders) channelize that attention.
Drawing a leaf from the world of management consulting, both Bill Bain at BCG and Marvin Bower at McKinsey were great lieutenants to their founders and steered the fortune of the two consulting powerhouses in their signature style. Bain did that under Bruce Henderson by bringing in the rigor of matrices and measuring the outcome; while Bower infused the signature professionalism at the Firm. Were these ideas original, or proprietary to the two individuals? Certainly not. However, the two masters helped in the evolutionary logic of variation-selection-retention to give visibility to such notions. Once the management attention is secured, other resources do flow.
Guiding based on experience
The journey of innovation is prone to two key types of errors – Type-I and Type-II. Type-I is ‘failed innovation’, also called as false positives, and Type-II is a ‘missed innovation’, or the false negatives. Type-I is an execution problem, while Type-II is a selection problem. The cost of Type-I mistake (failed innovations) is known, whereas that of Type-II (missed innovations) is notional and hence can spiral out of hand. For a sizable organization, Type-II errors are costlier, for once an opportunity is lost to a competition, all future avenues might also get sealed.
Leaders can play an experienced hand in navigating the project team, or the innovators, to not only execute efficiently but also help make the right choices, whereby minimizing both Type-I and Type-II errors.
While the very nature of innovation is novelty, however, there is always a virtue in having old hands on the deck, because a large portion of innovation is still routine, highly predictable, and the manageable bit. That’s why the brilliant founders of Google, Brin, and Page, hired an old hand, Eric Schmidt, to manage Google, and ditto with Facebook’s Zuckerberg in hiring the seasoned management consultant, Sheryl Sandberg.
Back in India as well, scores of family businesses value the virtue of getting seasoned executives run the show, and the more future-oriented functions, such as R&D or internationalization. Tata Group got Chandra to manage the empire, Ambanis and Birlas routinely infuse senior leaders from across the industry, including from outside of India, to operate their key functions.
Remember, innovation is not entirely new. It’s just about 20 percent new and 80 percent routine, grit, and good-old flawless execution. Larry Bossidy, the former chief of Allied Signals, puts it eloquently – “Execution has to be a part of a company’s strategy and its goals. It is the missing link between aspirations and results. If you don’t know how to execute, the whole of your effort as a leader will always be less than the sum of its parts.”
As a leader, it’s not about innovating, as much as enabling innovation and protecting those who innovate from organizational toxicity. This is best done by ensuring psychological safety, enabling resource leverage, and guiding based on the leaders’ experience. Keep in mind – not every great player can become a good coach, let alone a fine captain. It calls for a different set of skills; skills that take you further from where you have been.