Monday, August 16, 2010

The Unsung Heroes of Innovation

Here's an interesting post on innovation from the Harvard Business Review. In it, Columbia Business School Professor Rita McGrath shares her insights on what makes innovation work in many of the companies she's observed. Her summary:

First, at the top, innovation leaders need to:
-- Define the territory that the company should be exploring,
-- Make sure that organizational systems support innovation, and
-- Draw the distinction between practices that are appropriate for business-as-usual and those that make sense for more uncertain environments.

I couldn't help but notice the similarities between this list and the Principles of Innovation recently drafted by the WSAE Innovation Task Force, including "an innovation culture led from the top of the organization" and "the commitment of resources to a process of innovation." But where McGrath really helps flesh out some ideas is in WSAE's fourth principle: "Freedom to experiment and fail."

The members of the WSAE task force really struggled with that one. I think we all knew it was important, but feared what its implications were--especially in an association environment. As we later described in Barriers to Innovation in the Association World, many associations approach risk from a decidedly conservative perspective. The perceived “price of failure,” in terms of the potential loss of power and influence within an association hierarchy, is often too high to attract the necessary champions for innovation.

But here McGrath is clearly saying that overcoming that barrier is a prerequisite for innovation, and importantly, that responsibility for doing so lays with multiple layers of the organization. Leadership from the top is important, of course, but so is a politically-saavy and non-risk-averse layer of middle management--the people in the trenches, if you will, who are closest to the customer and the innovative ideas that can serve them better. She calls them the unsung heroes of the innovation process, who are...

...often the middle managers who somehow bring together the vision and direction at the top of the organization with the energy and breakthrough thinking at the entrepreneurial level. A huge part of this job is political, and if it's not handled well, there won't be much innovation. While lots of people seem to recognize this, regrettably few companies monitor, train, or reward middle managers for skillful political work. Indeed, as many have observed, it is often not in their own best interest to drive innovations: they do better financially and personally by supporting the status quo.

So, what are you doing to support these unsung heroes in your organization? Do they even know who they are? Or are they too busy protecting the status quo?


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