Recently, Paul Sloane asks on the inspiring weblog Blogging Innovation which managers should lead and promote innovation:
“Many businesses make the mistake of giving innovation projects to junior executives. It seems natural to hand innovation opportunities to enthusiastic and promising upstarts. But generally it is the experienced heavyweights who can overcome all the process and political obstacles that will occur.”
But is the solution that simple? Of course, experienced managers possess reputation as well as authority to promote innovative projects and to give them priority on the strategic agenda. However, along with accumulated experience, these heavyweights may also acquire cognitive blinders limiting their ability to recognize radical and promising new ideas.
Another problem to be considered is strategic path dependency: Organizations are susceptive to inertia and might not be able to build new capabilities for taking new grounds. This phenomenon could be observed with Polaroid when the company’s top managers still believed in the former core competence of instant photography even though the market demanded the new technology of digital imaging (Tripsas & Gavetti, 2000). Senior managers often shape corporate strategy – and if they are not able to think out of the box anymore, they can freeze strategic paths and block radical innovation. Thus, diversity in terms of age and experience might be important for creative and foresighted innovation leadership teams.
Sloane also says:
“If you want to change the culture of an organisation so that it values innovation and new business start-ups then get your most senior and best people involved in these activities. Don’t delegate it to lower level staff and hope for the best.”
Apart from the fact that cultural change is difficult and requires time – time a strategic and/or innovative window of opportunity might not allow – I argue that the so-called lower staff cannot be neglected in innovation leadership. Innovative companies like Google show that unbiased lateral thinkers from diverse organizational levels can not only generate, but also promote innovative ideas ((www.fastcompany.com). Moreover, Google traces its innovative spirit back to flat hierarchies and high democracy (Grant, 2010), which implies that the whole company must create an innovation-friendly and motivating environment – not only senior managers.
Tripsas, M. & Gavetti, G. (2000): Capabilities, Cognition and Inertia: Evidence from Digital Imaging. In: Strategic Management Journal, 21 (10/11), p. 1147.
Grant, R.M. (2010): Contemporary Strategy Analysis. 7th Edition. Chichester, UK: Wiley.