It’s hard to keep up with all the articles on innovation these days. There are so many outlets now where people are volunteering their experience and advice. A lot of the advice is quiet good. But, every now and then an article appears that assaults the senses like fingernails against a blackboard. Such is the case with “Why Companies Need Less Innovation,” by Pat Lencioni which appeared in Bloomberg Businessweek. I feel sorry for any company that takes this advice seriously.
In this article, the author begins with a very reasonable observation. Many companies do a great job of talking up innovation, and then disenfranchise workers by not doing what is needed to establish a productive and sustainable innovation culture. This is a horrible mistake that many executives make. Simply proclaiming that your company is building an innovation culture doesn’t make it so.
Unfortunately, the article takes a very wrong turn. Lencioni suggests that if workers are innovating, the result will be chaos. What tripe! Does Lencioni really misunderstand innovation so much as to equate innovation with workers gone wild abandoning their mission and acting on impulse? One hopes not, yet this is the message that comes through. Lencioni goes on to suggest that innovation should be the sole domain of the leadership team.
It is well understood that the ivory tower approach to innovation is a failed model. The leadership team doesn’t have the full perspective to be the sole contributors to the process. Yes, the leadership does have the best understanding of the company’s business needs and objectives. And their position gives them a perspective that the rank and file employees can’t share. But there are too many proof points that teach us that executives acting in such an insular manor are detached from the practical realities that the workers see every day. There are equally many examples of companies benefiting greatly from worker led innovation.
The leadership needs to play an active role in the innovation process, and as Lencioni rightly points out, they need to set the innovation agenda and ensure alignment and execution. However, it is a grave mistake to exclude the workforce from the innovation process.
Worried that innovating workers will cause disruption? Don’t be. Innovating doesn’t mean doing whatever strikes your fancy. For rank and file workers, it means thinking about your job as you do it. Asking yourself questions about what’s working and what’s not working. If something’s not working, what could be done to correct it? If something is working, could it be better? These thoughts and analysis must then be given a path through the company’s innovation process so that positive change can be initiated.
Will every worker contribute a ton of ideas? No. But, building a constructive process to tap into the collective wisdom of the organization will yield strong benefits and fuel innovation. It will not erode execution. Quite the contrary, it will lead to higher levels of execution. As a senior manager, I will choose thinking workers over mindless robots every time.
Bottom line… Execution, passion, and focus are not in conflict with innovation. Successful innovation requires brilliant innovation; winning business execution requires continuous innovation.