Interview – Rowan Gibson of “Innovation to the Core”
I had the opportunity to interview Rowan Gibson, co-author of “Innovation to the Core” about the book and about creating a systemic innovation capability inside organizations.
Rowan Gibson is a global business strategist, a bestselling author and an expert on radical innovation. In addition to “Innovation to the Core, Rowan is author of “Rethinking The Future”, and a keynote speaker at large international conferences, corporate management events and executive summits.
We have split this in-depth interview into three parts. Here is the third part of the interview:
6. What are some of the biggest barriers to innovation that you’ve seen in organizations?
The biggest barriers to innovation tend to be deep and systemic. They are embedded in a company’s leadership priorities, political structures, management processes, cultural values and everyday behavior. For example, senior managers might actually be working against innovation, because the company’s metrics system doesn’t measure them on it, and the compensation system doesn’t reward them for it, so why should they be worried about it? Or a company might be biased heavily toward its legacy business and against revolutionary new ideas that might potentially cannibalize that business. Or allocational rigidities in the budgeting process are making it difficult to get resources behind new opportunities. Or the criteria used in the company’s product development stage gate process may tend to kill great ideas too early. Or the organization might simply lack people who have had any significant training in the skills and tools of innovation. These are quite familiar problems, but in every organization the barriers to innovation are subtly different, depending on factors like corporate culture, business model, organizational structure, and so forth.
To make the transition from innovation initiative to enterprise capability, an organization needs to identify, objectively, the practices, policies, and processes inside its core managerial DNA that are toxic to innovation – like traditional management processes that systematically favor perpetuation and incrementalism over new thinking and innovation. Senior executives need to realize that building a truly innovative company is not a matter of simply asking people to be more innovative; it’s a matter of positively changing those things that today diminish or stunt the organization’s innovation potential. As Clayton Christensen puts it, “Systemic problems require systemic solutions”.
7. What skills do you believe that managers need to acquire to succeed in an innovation-led organization?
Managers are going to have to develop a “dual focus” – both on short-term operational performance and on long-term growth opportunities and innovation. The problem here is that these two sides of the business require very different skills. It takes a certain style of management to cut costs, restructure, reengineer, and downsize, and quite another style of management to create growth through new ideas and initiatives.
Today’s senior executives will have to learn to do both – they will have to be relentlessly focused on meeting the numbers within their legacy businesses, yet equally focused on generating and successfully commercializing new growth opportunities for the future. This is very easy to talk about but very difficult to do, because efficiency and innovation don’t usually “cohabit” too well – they’re uncomfortable bedfellows because there’s just an inherent tension between these two forces. So what this adds up to is an extremely difficult balancing act for today’s managers.
I know of only one way to realign the focus and commitment of top management so that it’s equally focused toward innovation, and that is to design a new set of metrics for evaluating management performance – one that puts innovation at least on a par with other performance objectives. If you think about the Balanced Scorecard inside most organizations it’s actually not very balanced, in the sense that it tends to be weighted heavily toward optimization rather than innovation. So the first step is to make sure innovation is fully represented in a company’s metrics. It has to be recognized to be equal in importance to operational excellence.
Companies might preach the need for risk taking and rule breaking, but these are not the metrics they typically use for measuring their managers’ performance. Management compensation is typically tied to other measures like cost, efficiency, speed, and customer satisfaction – and executives are paid for making progress against those metrics. Organizations that are serious about making innovation a core competence need a new set of metrics to offset this tendency and encourage managers to put as much energy into innovation as they are currently putting into optimization.
The other thing managers need to learn is that, in an innovation-led organization, strategy-making is no longer going to be a top-down, executive-only exercise. It’s something that will involve everyone in the company – and even people on the outside – and it will increasingly emerge from the bottom up. Managers must come to believe, deep down, in “innovation democracy” – the notion that ideas with billion-dollar potential can come from anyone and anywhere.
Instead of fearing that this will put them out of a job, managers should recognize their pivotal role as champions of the new innovation process. Rather than going away in a little group and trying to come up with all the new growth opportunities on their own, executives should be encouraging all of their people to think like entrepreneurs and submit new ideas. Then they need to regularly sift through the wide variety of opportunities bubbling up from below, and look for ways to invest incrementally in these opportunities. This has worked very well for Best Buy, for example, where some of the most valuable ideas in recent years have come not from top management but from line-level employees who interact with customers each and every day.
This is no doubt going to require a degree of humility on the part of top management, because it essentially means that senior executives will have to give up the old, elitist view about who is responsible for the destiny and direction of the organization, and start involving many new and different voices in the process of charting the company’s future.
8. If you were to change one thing about our educational system to better prepare students to contribute in the innovation workforce of tomorrow, what would it be?
Well, if we agree that tomorrow’s economy will be an ideas economy, or a creative economy, or – as I like to call it – an innovation economy, then what does this tell us about the kind of skills tomorrow’s workers are going to need? Look at the typical school curriculum. What are the kids learning? Most of it has to do with filling their heads with old information – with facts and figures – as opposed to enhancing their imagination, their ability to create or envisage new solutions.
The education system is set up to teach conformity. It punishes people who fail to stand in line, or who question authority. Yet when we look at successful innovators – like Steve Jobs or Richard Branson – we find that they tend to be rebels. They are contrarian in their thinking. They ‘zig’ where others ‘zag’. They have somehow developed an almost reflexive ability to question the status quo, to look at things from a completely different angle of view, to imagine revolutionary new ways of doing things, to spot opportunities that others can’t see, to understand the revolutionary portent in trends and discontinuities, to empathize with unmet needs, to take risks and follow dreams. Is that what schools and colleges are teaching their students to do? I don’t think so. In fact, I would argue that they are systematically robbing people of their ability to think creatively.
Today’s MBAs are also woefully unprepared for the new era. They may have learned how to read a balance sheet correctly, but when did they learn how to systematically discover new strategic insights, or how to come up with radical new growth opportunities, or how to recognize a really big idea when they see one, or how to rapidly reallocate resources to push ideas forward? And when did they learn how to foster the cultural and constitutional conditions inside an organization that serve as catalysts for breakthrough innovation? Let’s face it, what business schools produce en masse are business administrators, not business innovators. They reward people with MBAs, not MBIs. And, again, I believe that part of the answer is to bring more balance into the student’s priorities, so that they learn how to embrace the paradox between the relentless pursuit of efficiency and the restless search for radical, value-creating innovations.
Anyway, I’m glad to see that “Innovation to the Core” is increasingly being included on business school curriculums. I wanted it to be kind of a business education for the 21st century and it’s gratifying to see it being used that way. The book is also playing quite a role in corporate training programs inside some of the companies that have truly recognized the innovation imperative. So if that means I’m making a meaningful contribution to advancing the field of business innovation, I’ll be a happy man.
Don’t miss parts one and two:
- Part 1 of 3 – Building a Systemic Innovation Capability
- Part 2 of 3 – Building a Systemic Innovation Capability
Braden Kelley is a popular innovation speaker, embeds innovation across the organization with innovation training, and builds B2B inbound marketing strategies that drive increased revenue, visibility and inbound sales leads. He is the creator of the Nine Innovation Roles Group Diagnostic Tool and author of Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire from John Wiley & Sons. He tweets from @innovate.