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.