People say innovation is vital, that’s it’s the engine of economic growth. Innovation is nothing less than the process of finding new ways to create value. To oversimplify, but not by much, economies innovate and produce value, governments regulate and distribute it. If we didn’t have innovation, we would still be plowing fields with mules, building homes of cinder block and eating beans and rice every day. Life would go on in a state of static equilibrium. Unfortunately, that’s still the reality for millions of people. Innovation has not touched most people. Nor have most people been innovators themselves.
On a personal level, innovation is a disposition and a drive. Who can dispute the ferocious drive of Thomas Edison? Innovation can also be a learned behavior driven by interest or ambition. You can teach people how to make use of structure, process and tools, but you can’t teach the underlying motivation. It’s difficult to implant within a person a culture of curiosity.
On an organizational or societal level, innovation is a cultural and political issue? Why is there no innovation coming out of Cuba, Venezuela or North Korea? Politics and culture influence the policies that bring or don’t bring innovation about. At every level, innovation is about feeding what enables and starving what hinders.
Some commentators like to stand up and say, “Innovation is important. You all need to innovate more.” That’s not enormously helpful. It reminds me of a statement Dr. Benjamin Spock, the American pediatrician and author of the best-selling book, "Baby and Child Care," once made: “It’s always harder to do the right job with your own children than to write about it.” The same is true of innovation. It’s a lot easier to talk or write about innovation, which is what I’m doing here.
Why is it so hard? Innovation is inherently subversive. It’s traitorous and heretical. It’s iconoclastic and unconventional. It’s antagonistic and hostile to the way we do things. It’s what Joseph Schumpeter called creative destruction. And that’s the problem. The creative part is natural; the destructive part is unnatural, and so for most people and most organizations and most societies, we come up with ideas (the natural part), but we stall on execution (the unnatural part).
One of the consistent patterns among leaders who lead extraordinary innovation is that they challenge and liberate at the same time — as John F. Kennedy did when he told the nation we would return a man safely from the moon by the end of the decade.
Nearly two years ago, Nicky Oppenheimer gave a speech at Oxford University. Oppenheimer is the chairman of De Beers, the biggest diamond company in the world. From his vantage point as both an African, and as a businessman whose operations focus on the African continent, he reflects on an opposite condition in which leaders have not challenged and liberated the people in their charge.
”The world has learnt what we in Africa have known for some time — no amount of aid will produce accelerated growth and development unless the countries of Africa get their own houses in order in terms of governance and good policy making. This is no rocket science and actually it is strange that anyone ever thought that if African economies did not do the basics right the result would be any different to developed economies.
“Aid will have a role to play in this process but we Africans will need to guard vigilantly of the downsides of aid of which there are many. The culture of foreign consultants which is part and parcel of foreign aid programmes has the effect of keeping African capacity low; moreover, the higher than average local salaries paid by the donor communities denude the economy of its entrepreneurs which are vital to successful economies.”
Do you see the connection to innovation? Innovation grows in delicate climate, climate that must be carefully nurtured in the politics and culture of a society. It comes down to leadership. Think about it this way. Organizations are not innovative, people are. So why don’t people innovate? Because they haven’t been challenged and liberated. Whose job is that?
Innovation is a direct reflection of leadership. Max De Pree said, “The signs of outstanding leadership appear primarily among the followers.” In most cases, a center of innovation, be it a team, organization, society or nation, reflects leaders who challenge and then liberate.
Timothy R. Clark is the founder of TRClark Partners, a management consulting and training organization. He earned a doctorate from Oxford University and is the best-selling author of "Epic Change" and "The Leadership Test." E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org