James Gardner, an innovator, blogger and author whom I respect, has a new post out today that talks about the need for a “new kind of hero“. He’s referencing innovation heroes like Steve Jobs. As you may believe, some Apple supporters and investors are in a bit of a tizzy, wondering if Apple can continue it’s great streak of successful product and service innovations if Jobs is absent from the company.
James notes that most firms that rely on innovation heroes are usually successful in the short run, but don’t create the capabilities to innovate sustainably over time. After a few successes, the heroes, battered and bruised from the immense effort required to innovate in an environment that often isn’t very supportive, burn out. Frankly, most heroes, whether they are innovation heroes or imaginary superheroes or even just random people on the street who do heroic things will tell you not to follow in their footsteps. The burdens are too high.
However, many firms hope that a hero will arise in their midst – an innovation hero. That hero, when he or she comes, will overcome years of efficiency and effectiveness training and methods and processes tuned to achieving quarterly goals. The hero will accomplish the development of new products and services by rising above the day to day fray, working with little support and few resources to identify really important new needs and to commercialize products in less time than the firm does today. This thinking, which belongs in a comic book, is more pervasive than you might imagine. Too often external consulting firms, even the one I represent, offer our services as an external super-hero, one you can simply alert with the Bat Sign over Gotham, and we’ll respond. Even well-regarded and capable innovation consultants from the outside can’t work miracles if the material they have to work with is the same material that blocks your internal teams.
James toys with the answer to the heroes problem but doesn’t delve deeply into the answer. We believe heroes arise when people have become complacent and cynical, when there don’t seem to be any easy answers and everyone is locked into a common perspective. It’s not easy to solve these problems, and heroes are one possibility. But there is another possibility, and James points at it – creating an environment and culture that welcomes and encourages innovation, and processes and methods that people understand that simplify the work. Superheroes are only necessary when there’s “no other way” and when only the abilities of a superhero can overcome the existing barriers. What if the executives, whose participation and support are necessary, rework the culture and eliminate the barriers to innovation? What if the common expectation within the organization is: we will be innovative? After all, isn’t that why Schmidt is stepping aside at Google, to allow the wonder boys to rework the culture to encourage even more innovation?
In a culture that encourages innovation and provides the tools, methods and processes, anyone can innovate, so there’s far less need for a hero. Or, perhaps, everyone can be an innovation hero if they choose to be.
Jeffrey 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.