Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Innovative Leaders Tolerate Mavericks

Harvard Professor and former Medtronic CEO Bill George has a terrific article in Fortune this week about what the best innovation leaders do.   He argues, among other things, that these leaders demonstrate a "willingness to tolerate mavericks and protect them from middle management."  Here's an excerpt:

The best innovators are rule-breakers who don’t fit the corporate mold. These people are often threatening to middle managers, many of whom adhere to standard practices. That’s why innovation leaders must protect their mavericks’ projects, budgets, and careers rather than forcing them into traditional management positions.

I think George has hit on something very important.  Innovators often run up against hurdles when they try to position what they are doing in the traditional organization.  Middle managers feel threatened, try to force innovators to follow existing procedures, apply the wrong kinds of metrics to evaluate their work, or worry too much about how new products might cannibalize existing sales.   Moreover, middle managers may be locked in mentally to pre-existing and well-proven business models.   Innovative leaders protect the innovators from these middle managers who might quash new ideas.  However, I would argue that the most important protectors might not be the CEOs that George profiles in his Fortune article.  Often, the key protectors are senior managers in the organization who serve as key champions or sponsors of innovation projects, and who create a protective buffer for these innovators to do their work.   The CEO can only do so much. These folks a layer or two down in the organization must also serve in this maverick-tolerating and maverick-protecting role.  

1 comment:

Log 6 said...

I'd like to comment on this blog concerning three related topics - corporate trust, experience versus disaster, and unicorns.

Corporate trust - middle managers are no different than any other leader in an organization. They follow the Bell Curve from toxic to phenomenal. I am assuming one of the main reasons many are resistant to change and new innovations is because they fear that they will be supplanted by the maverick despite all their years of experience and knowledge. Those perceptions are the canary in the coal mine for identifying a corporate culture that does not endear trust or value experience.

Experience - An in depth study of leadership in Native American tribes would be interesting. From my cursory research - mavericks would love the image of being a respected warrior in a tribe where bold, daring, bravado and skill (and maybe some luck) could result in becoming a war chief at a young age. Problem is that the Peace Chiefs (older, more experienced, tempered warriors - today's middle/senior/CEO management) couldn't always overrule or control the passions of the war chief, much to the detriment of the tribe in a number of cases of hot-headed battles. If today's so-called mavericks have such hot ideas, why don't they leave and create their own firms? If you believe Silicon Valley hype, that activity is happening abundantly in the U.S. . . . or you can look at data from the Kauffman Foundation showing entrepreneurial start-up are at the lowest levels in decades.

Unicorns - Mavericks are like unicorns. Everyone wants to be one and everyone claims to have seen one. From experience, nothing is more rewarding than having a subordinate who is enthusiastic, flexible, and a veritable idea factory. Likewise, nothing is more annoying than having a subordinate who thinks they know it all, and what they know must be unique and special, and why am I (evil boss) not rewarding and promoting them (because this idea has been tried five times in the past in five different flavors and failed every time for the same reasons). My opinion is that true mavericks are really few and far between.

BLUF - create the type of organizational culture and leaders who listen to and value the input of all team members.