Waiting Out the CEO on Innovation

Waiting Out the CEO on InnovationI found January 28th’s Dilbert cartoon completely apropos for innovation. This one cartoon does more to explain why innovation so often fails to achieve expectations that all the speakers, white papers and explanations set out there.

If you haven’t seen the cartoon, let me describe it to you. Dilbert’s CEO comes into a meeting and tells everyone to drop everything and spend all of their time building robots. After he leaves, Dilbert turns to the rest of the folks in the meeting and says “Let’s wait a week and see if he forgets”. Everyone knows that CEOs want to convey big visions, and occasionally don’t follow up grand plans. Good middle managers understand their role is to ascertain what’s important to the CEO and implement it. Given the predilection for grand pronouncements sometimes not carefully thought out, many middle managers will wait for confirmation on an unusual or dramatic request.

This truth is especially important for innovation. Survey after survey show that CEOs “want” innovation. At least that’s what they tell the folks creating the surveys. Some of that response is simply giving the answer they know they are expected to provide. Some of that response is a cynical response to appear innovative while not changing the status quo. Many of these CEOs actually want innovation, but don’t understand how to implement it, don’t understand the significance of the request or the amount of change necessary. When they make a request for innovation, they expect their requests to be put into action. Then, they become distracted with one of hundreds of other items that require their attention, and the demand for innovation is conveniently minimized or ignored.

CEOs are right to demand more innovation, but must become more realistic about the request and their expectations. Businesses have spent years optimizing a very efficient and effective operating model and have very little room for change, especially the change demanded by embracing innovation. Trying to implement more innovation is noble, but requires a lot of work, work that will distract the business from its normally efficient, effective processes. Middle managers who’ve spent years developing robust processes to achieve short term financial success are loathe to see their work go to waste and don’t want to distract their people and processes from what they do best.

Thus, the importance of “focus”. If CEOs really want innovation, they must focus, focus, focus on innovation. A one time off-handed request for more innovation simply won’t create much change. Looking at many innovators, CEOs or other key executives have supported innovation while the culture shifts from a focus on efficiency to a focus on innovation. Understanding the need for innovation is important, reinforcing, supporting and sustaining the focus and delivering on the commitments required are what distinguish the firms that desire innovation from the firms that deliver innovation.

Middle managers, you must understand if the CEO’s request for innovation is similar to Dilbert’s CEO demanding more robots, a whim or “flavor of the month”, or, on the other hand, a real demand soon to be repeated, with commitments and resources.

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Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of “Make us more Innovative”, and innovateonpurpose.blogspot.com.

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