Terrible Innovator No: 6 – The Cowboy

The following is the last excerpt from Innovation and the Future Proof Bank in my series on terrible innovation employees I identify six archetypal innovation employees you should watch out for, and the last is “The Cowboy”.  From Chapter 9:

The final kind of innovator to watch out for is the Cowboy.  Such individuals are very, very committed to their innovations, so much so that no blockage can stand in their way. They go after what is needed to make the new thing happen, and they do so with gusto.

Unfortunately, they also do it without much thought as to what will happen after they’ve rammed the innovation down everyone’s throats.

If Cowboys are lucky, they’ll at least get their current innovation out the door and into the hands of customers. But in doing so they will have locked themselves out of being able to do the next round of innovation.  Cowboys are aware that they are burning influence to make things happen, but their focus is so much on the now that they don’t permit themselves to consider how they will deliver the next innovation, or the one after that.

I’ve met innovators in this category, in fact, who feel that if they can just get this innovation out the door, all sins will be forgiven, no matter how heinous. That, of course, is never true, because for every innovation there are both winners and losers. The losers will never be happy that the innovation makes it out the door at all, but the winners will also likely have a bad taste in their mouths: they might have a successful innovation on their hands, but to get it they were forced to do something they didn’t want.  There is very little upside here.

Another failing of the Cowboy is that they will almost never drown the puppy. They get so invested in one particular innovation (which they have burned a huge amount of influence to promote) that failure is not an option.  Even if the Key Questions turn out to be less than positive they won’t let things go. And they can’t: their personal success is tied into achieve this one, great thing. They have no choice but to continue, since if they fail, they are left with nothing.

That, of course, just highlights to everyone that their performance is sorely lacking.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the Terrible Innovators. I’ll be returning to normal posting from now on.

Previous terrible innovators:

Reprinted from Innovation and the Future Proof Bank, published by John Wiley & Sons. Copyright 2009.

4 Responses to“Terrible Innovator No: 6 – The Cowboy”

  1. December 21, 2009 at 1:23 pm #

    James, it's sure that the Cowboy is very bad for organizations: they are ego-centric, never drown a puppy and most of all, they can't be controlled. Problem is that they are probably the best for innovations. Organizations have a formidable power to filter out any devious thinking, if you're an innovator and start playing by the organization's book, there's no chance that you'll have any significant impact. You may raise the corporate ladder quickly, but Cowboys are not interested climbing ladders, are they? So question is: Should organization pick the best innovator to pretend innovating, or do they really want to change?

  2. December 22, 2009 at 9:14 am #

    I am not certain I'd agree with "they are probably best for innovations". They may be good at pushing things through, but a cowboy makes so many enemies that *future* innovations become very hard.
    There is a necessary balance, I think between doing what makes sense today (to make things happen) and what makes sense in the future (preserve your ability to do new things).

  3. Justin
    December 22, 2009 at 9:36 am #

    James, we talk about "mavericks" with a degree of reverence in innovation circles. What separates the cowboys from the mavericks?
    Also, don't you need a little bit of cowboy behaviour to deal with the defeatists?

  4. December 22, 2009 at 1:41 pm #

    Justin,
    I think you're right.. you do need a bit of the cowboy if you want to get past the defeatists. My caution, here, is that if you have too much cowboy you get yourself into so much trouble that the permission to do innovation at all gets taken away.
    I think there is a difference between a maverick and a cowboy. A maverick will break a little rule with wisdom, and a cowboy breaks every rule without.
    Do you agree?

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