#552  Innovative Leader                 Volume 11, Number 5        May 2002

Managing Innovation Managers
by Roger Bean and Russell Radford

Mr. Bean and Mr. Radford are principals of the consulting firm Bean, Radford & Associates.  They are authors of The Business of Innovation (Amacom, New York, 2001).  

One seldom hears much about management development in discussions of innovation.  Evidently, the presumption is that management is just fine, or possibly that managers are either incapable of, or somehow exempt from, innovation.  While attending to all the day-to-day needs of the organization, too few high-level managers tend to the care and feeding of their own skills.  If innovation is as important to success as we believe it is, should we not direct at least some effort to developing the management skills necessary to stimulate and nurture innovation throughout the organization?  There should be a concerted effort to develop management awareness and knowledge of at least the basic requirements for nurturing and sustaining an innovative organization.

Management Factors Involved in Nurturing Innovation

Numerous volumes have addressed the role of the executive in business today, so there is little point in reiterating common themes.  There are, though, several points specifically related to nurturing and fostering innovation that are worthy of more attention.  In no important order of importance, they are:

  • Personal understanding of the process of innovation

  • Continuous learning and study

  • Curiosity

  • Openness

  • Leadership

  • Focus on strategic issues rather than operational tasks

Letís look at each of these.

Personal understanding of the process of innovation.  First is the upper managerís personal understanding of the process and activity of innovation itself.  If you have little interest in or regard for the process of innovation, then it is unreasonable to presume you can lead and manage innovation to superior results.  How does innovation come about?  Can it be structuredópursued methodically?  How can you manage something you donít understand?  The managerís learning process is enhanced considerably when innovators help managers learn more about what innovators do, how they do it, and how it contributes to company success.

Continuous learning and study.  Continuous learning is the hallmark of every great executive.  Maybe there was a time when the senior management could coast along on skills and knowledge acquired long ago, but if that was ever true it certainly is not now.  Managers who sharpen their skills continuously can be confident they will remain valuable contributors.

Curiosity.  Innovation is better managed by those with diverse interests and a curious nature.  Itís not possible to fake interest in innovative ideas and projects when the managerís heart just isnít in it.  The manager must be genuinely interested in possibilities to value innovation.  The manager who is always interested in new things and new ways will invariably find it easier to develop and maintain a closer relationship with innovators in their organization.

Openness.  Similarly, the manager must be receptive.  The innovative organization thrives on openness to the new and novel, openness to criticism and suggestion, and openness to learning from everyone and anyone.  A manager who is open to new possibilities and to hearing from others is much more able to foster such an attitude in those working under her.

Leadership. Leadership implies an interest or even passion for progress and for useful ideas.  Continual improvement of organizational capabilities and competitive prowess is achieved through leadership.  Leading an innovative organization certainly calls for even more of these qualities.

Focus of strategic issues rather than operational tasks.  A focus on the important and strategic rather than the operational is the mark of an effective upper manager.  By important, we donít imply that nonexecutive tasks are not important, but rather that the executive must, to do the job well, focus on those responsibilities that only the executive can accomplish.  Every moment the executive spends doing nonexecutive work is wasted.  Generally, if someone else can do the work, the executive should not be doing it.  When the uniquely executive work is not getting done, the organization is the worse for it.

Can an organization be highly innovative within an environment hostile to creativity and innovation?  We do not believe so, at least not beyond the random acts of innovation that might peek through in spite of the environment.  Can anyone but executive management create the environment for innovation?  No.  Subordinates may try, but significant innovation cannot be sustained without a companywide appreciation of the benefits, the reason, the purpose.  That sense of perspective cannot be established entirely by lower-level managers, no matter how dedicated, if they do not receive commensurate support from the top.

A Tapestry of Contradictions

Management is nothing if not the art of manipulating contradictions into a coherent and efficient system to provide something someone wants.  Here are a few of the contradictions confronting managers every day:

  • Hierarchy versus anarchy

  • Control versus flexibility

  • External versus internal

  • Serendipity versus goal clarity

  • Individuality versus collectivity

How these contradictions are resolved, also determines the climate for innovation.  Experienced managers know that Solomon-like decisions are never really an either-or proposition.  Instead, sound decisions are nearly always a balancing act that places the specific situation somewhere between the two polar extremes.

The Determining Dimensions

Four key dimensions determine the real environment for innovation.  These are:

  • The generally perceived level of control

  • The operational structure of the organization

  • Access to and quality of corporate strategy

  • The overall level of organizational focus

Letís look at the four dimensions.

The generally perceived level of control.  Control issues are typically anathema to ďcreative typesĒ if only because control is the antithesis of flexibility.  Flexibility offers the means and the time to nurture innovation.  Conversely, inflexible organizations are emblematic of bureaucracy, and bureaucracy is hostile to creativity and innovation.  The bureaucratic behemoths are the poster companies for stagnation.  Inflexibility in thinking, inflexibility in action, and inflexibility in seeing are all disabling afflictions.  Finding an efficient and supportive balance between control and flexibility is one aspect of good management.

Certainly, strategy and strategic vision provide clarity and purpose, but taken to extreme, clarity can engender blindness to new or serendipitous events and developments that provide grist for the innovation mill.  With strategic focus, more is usually better than less, but on a scale of one to ten, few managers would seek a perfect score.  The efficiently innovative organization is focused, not fixated like a doe caught in the headlights.  The purpose of strategy is not to preclude innovation but to encourage it within bounds determined by organizational goals.

The operational structure of the organization.  Organizational structure is seldom neutral.  It can encourage or discourage innovation.  Systems theory places considerable emphasis on the idea that structure produces behavior.

Structure refers to the structure of the system, which is more encompassing than just the organization chart.  It also includes the operating policies.  In this respect, system structure has the power to redefine and redesign itself through the decisions of managers. 

Structures encouraging unhealthy competitive attitudes are less supportive of cooperation and innovation.  Strict functional structures often create barriers that, while supportive of the function, may unintentionally discourage new ideas and experimentation.  Financial controls and procedures allocating resources are particularly susceptible to the creation of mischief.

Access to and quality of corporate strategy.  Knowledge of the purpose of oneís work is essential to stimulating useful innovation.  Sound corporate strategies, communications to employees in clear and relevant language provides the foundation for individual contributions to those strategies.  People need to know where the organization is trying to go and how it is trying to get there before they can steer their innovation efforts in that direction.  We all have probably encountered organizations where most of the employees knew nothing about the goals and strategies (presuming there were some), but were criticized for being slow to innovate.

The overall level of organizational focus.  Focus sets the stage for either an internal or external orientation.  A market focus is arguably the greatest stimulus to innovation because it orients attention to serving new customer needs and/or solving new customer problems, thus creating value.  Just as necessity is the mother of invention, there is no substitute for understanding your customers as a springboard to good and marketable innovation.

Excerpted from THE BUSINESS OF INNOVATION  by Roger Bean and Russell Radford.  Copyright 2002 Roger Bean and Russell Radford.  Published by AMACOM Books, a division of American Management Association International, New York, NY.  Used with permission.  All rights reserved.

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