Managers are for Efficiency, Leaders are for Innovation

Managers are for Efficiency, Leaders are for InnovationTime was, back when the railroads were built, that the military was basically the only management structure that was large, distributed and relatively effective. So the railroads and other rapidly expanding businesses adopted the military’s top down, command and control management philosophies.

This was actually a driver for industrial growth, since many corporations were forming and needed a structure to allow them to grow, to expand and to control operations. The top down command and control organization wasn’t especially fast at making decisions, but was good at implementing the desires of the senior executives and good at repetitive work. This structure was especially valuable when few people had much education, but could be taught relatively simple operations on a production line.

Fast forward to today, and the top down, command and control organization is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. First, it takes too long for commands to filter down through the organization, so the responsiveness of a top down command and control organization is limited, when the environment is changing rapidly. Second, the executives and leaders rotate through jobs and positions like a roulette wheel, in one slot and then on to another slot every two to three years. This lack of longevity in any role doesn’t create much stability or desire for long term change. Third, most workers in large organizations have far more training and education than their forebears, and are able to make informed decisions, if they are informed of the goals of the organization.

The Cross Roads

Our businesses are at a cross-roads, in terms of existing structures and purpose, and future demands. Most command and control businesses were designed and built based on a competitive model and framework that is dissolving. As trade barriers fall, competition increases and low cost options shift from country to country, building an ever more effective command and control environment is like akin to “fighting the last war”. Organizational structures need to change. But you know this already. Gary Hamel told you this in The Future of Management. The real question is: do you understand the impact of this treatise when it comes to innovation?

Leaders, managers and visions, oh my!

Back in the day when command and control was the accepted and the practical alternative, executives created strategies but didn’t bother to share them with their employees. They simply asked for specific tasks to be accomplished, and the employees acted accordingly. The employees didn’t question, and didn’t bother to share ideas. Requests came top down, and results flowed bottom up.

But today, things should be different. With a far more educated and capable workforce, executive can expect far more than simply acquiescence to commands. But do the communication channels exist to allow good ideas to flow both ways? Often, modern corporations seem to represent the epitome of evolved learning, with empowered teams, active communication and deep training. But underneath all of this evolved learning and management still resides, as an almost vestigial organ, a command and control mentality. Oh, we’ve received the training, heard the message and nodded our heads at the sage wisdom, thank you, but we’ll still wait for the directions.

What we need is a clear vision for the company, and the right and responsibility to achieve it with our best capabilities and ideas, regardless of their source. What we need is executives and leaders who harness our knowledge and channel capabilities and passions. While executives have gotten much better at expressing “what” they want, the “how” part is often still missing, and in the absence of clear directions, staff will revert to what they think is safe and reasonable.

The new paradigm

Greg Satell has written about this better than I can, so let’s link to his article, The Leaderless Organization. What you need to be consistently innovative is to create very clear, compelling strategies and goals for your business, and provide the tools and techniques for your teams to deliver. And be open enough to their ideas to encourage more innovation. This doesn’t suggest that organizations don’t need executives, just that they need leaders even more than they need managers. Leaders are good for innovation, managers are good for efficiency. Both are required in a modern organization.

image credit: the gap image from bigstock

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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 Relentless Innovation and the blog Innovate on Purpose.

This entry was posted in Business Models, Innovation, Leadership & Infrastructure, Management, People & Skills and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

32 Responses to Managers are for Efficiency, Leaders are for Innovation

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  7. “To have consistent breakthroughs, intense creativity, and innovation,
    however, letting people manage their own time and output is the key to

    Liquid Leadership: From Woodstock to Wikipedia
    Page 39

    This is a powerful article you’ve written Jeffry, and one that I hope more leaders take to heart.


  8. Kristina Johnson says:

    Good information. I teach business classes in higher education and am passionate about innovation. I also am a contributing columnist for two local business publications and would be happy to help edit copy for you. I could send you a few pieces of my work.

  9. Shambhoo says:

    Very good !

  10. John says:

    Innovation requires a wealth of information… Leaders seek critical thinking and except ideas from all levels in the work infrastructure. It will take a break from convention and utilizing the “internal think-tank” more often to reach the next level.

  11. Pingback: Managers are for Efficiency ... Leaders are for Innovation ! | Strategy & Governance |

  12. Laurie says:

    This has been implemented by some great companies for decades, such as HP in former days. What is needed and can be lacking is the trust factor to enable great ideas/innovations to move forward. Companies need to give latitude to implement ideas up to a certain cost factor for speed of enablement. Requiring multi-levels of management to approve expenditures under $500 or $1,000 is a waste of money and time. Efficiency gains realized over time costs money. Pinching pennies and being overly cautious on ‘admin back office spend’ lacks true vision while ‘sales-focused’ management needs to quickly weed out wasteful sales investments on non-productive sales people and over-the-top entertainment entitlements. Doing more with less is a great concept, but make sure the correct tools and systems are in place to be able to better support the business in that model. This takes the real guts and vision!

  13. Pingback: Managers are for Efficiency, Leaders are for Innovation | Business technology |

  14. Sriidhar Kota says:

    Good article Jeffry.
    When one talks about innovation, the ‘why, what, how, when’ (to innovate) has to come from within the pool in the organisations. Innovation is not a singular effort!!
    Your innovation effort has to create VALUE.
    I like the way it is being said – Collaborate, Co-create & Co-own, thereby create VALUE.

  15. Mohammed Sirajuddin says:

    Both efficiency and innovation are elements of good man-age-ment, which is not the sole concern of the so called management gurus or professional managers; every man and womwn is managing even when they perform simple tasks like reading, writting, speaking etc. or performing activiries forming part of complex construction or production projects etc.Good leaders are good managers and visa versa,

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  18. Joe says:

    Nice piece. Too bad the government does not see it that way. Lots of waste even today.

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  20. Dave Needham says:

    I agree with a great deal of your article and it is very well written. I do, however, wonder if you are spreading a misconception about the military “command and control” methodology. According to military leadership methods “command” means to make a decision towards action, “control” is using feedback to adjust your actions, so it is closer to “quality control” than being controlling, per se. I think this fundamental misunderstanding of the term “command and control” distorts people’s behavior towards being “commanding” and “controlling” which is not the intent. Current military leadership also encourages a great deal of field level decisions for exactly the reason you describe – to increase the agility and reduce the time waiting for instructions. (more here –

    Great article! Organizations need both and more over, they need individuals to better understand the difference and have the competence to flex according to the situation.

  21. John Skelton says:

    Great post, Jeffrey, and thank you for the links. I have long believed that a clearly articulated vision, mission and statement of core values, weaved throughout a strategic plan that is consistently applied, are crucial to long-term success of the modern enterprize.

    I would argue, however, that the command-and-control approach is NOT “rapidly becoming a thing of the past.” Therein lies the source of much of the suffering of American (Western) business. Where we ARE and where we SHOULD BE are definitey two different states of existence!

    Anyway, well done! I will definitely share onto the Supply Chain Almanac FB page www/ Thanks!

  22. Pingback: Managers are for Efficiency, Leaders are for Innovation | Manager l'innovation |

  23. A. MUBARAK HUSSAIN, Divisional Manager HR & IR. says:

    I am having a little bit difference of opinion, Managers are for efficiency only can do this result with leadership skills. By this A good Manager can bring more innovation results. For example, If I set a target for 8 hours and on any reason it is not achieved by human fault my team will complete it after 8 hours without expecting any overtime wages.

  24. Pingback: Innovation Excellence | Managers are for Efficiency, Leaders are for Innovation | If you lead them, they will follow! |

  25. terri Kruzan says:

    Love this post from an understanding org culture perspective. It is a great history lesson about the source of the traditional top-down cultual characteristic of many organizations around the world. A couple of other sources are from the traditional family model of organization – ‘Mom & Dad know best and children are to listen and do what they are told.’ Another source are from traditional religious institutions where the belief is that ‘religious leaders know best and provide life rules/regs to live by.’ The cool thing is that many of these traditional and world-wide institutions are adapting as well in reponse to changes in our world – some more slowly than others and others going in the opposite direction and becoming even more top-down in response to social/ educational/political/technological changes. As you can see, shifting the top-down culture characteristic within organizations is complex.

  26. Web Owl says:

    Leaders are very different types of personalities from managers: visionaries, creative types and rebels.

  27. prbeckman says:

    “Time was, back when the railroads were built, that the military was basically the only management structure that was large, distributed and relatively effective. So the railroads and other rapidly expanding businesses adopted the military’s top down, command and control management philosophies.”

    This is wrong. In fact it’s the exact opposite of what actually happened. The organizational revolution that resulted from the 2nd industrial revolution that followed the Civil War emerged first in the private sector and then later was applied to government including the military. In fact it began with the railroads, which were the first big industrial organizations, and then as every sector of the economy industrialized, the top-down, hierarchical organizational model run by expert managers was invented and spread throughout the economy. This model then would be adapted for government especially the military. The military during this time period was very small and was not “only management structure that was large”.

    “The continental army was shifting from small company tactics to training for war under a command system based on corporate management.” (“Guardians of Empire: The US Army and the Pacific, 1902-1940” by Brian Linn)

    This is actually really important because this period was perhaps the most important transition period in American history. And it’s important to get the order of organizational development right. First railroads, then other industrial organizations, then military and other government agencies. Today we are seeing a similar pattern. The private sector is innovating other models of organization and our challenge today is how to apply them to government including the military. We are not the first generation to go through this. In fact we can look back to that earlier period and see how they handled organizational innovation and try to learn form that experience.

  28. Leigh says:

    If Managers are for Efficiency and Leaders are for Innovation, how do you find/create great leadership & breakthrough innovation? By definition, these cannot come from the people who make great management!

    The problem doesn’t stem from recognizing the difference… it comes from RECRUITING the difference!

  29. Pingback: Leaders, Managers | tonycantafio

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