A new kind of innovation hero

I read this morning the board of Apple is facing a bit of a shareholder backlash. Investors want to see a succession plan for Steve Jobs, who’s taken medical leave for the third time in seven years. And the board don’t want to tell them what’s contained in the plan for fear of “revealing secret plans [that] would aid competitors and make it harder to retain executives.”

The real issue here – whether reality matches perception or not – is Apple has an “innovation hero” problem.

An innovation hero occurs whenever your innovation effort crucially relies on a single individual to get things done. The individual – probably someone pretty senior– uses his or her personal control of resource, hierarchical power, or charisma to make innovation happen, often with very little support from any structured system that fosters innovative outcomes. I’ve written before that most innovation programmes don’t work for this reason in the long term.

But for a while, doing things this way works. Innovation gets done, and it will likely be successful innovation.

But everyone wears out eventually. People leave or change jobs. Or maybe they lose interest, or just retire. Either way, it is inevitable you’re going to lose your innovation hero at some time in the future.

What happens then is pretty inevitable unless you have a whole pipeline of innovation heroes ready to step in and take up the slack. Apple’s investors are in a panic because they worry that Apple doesn’t have a new innovation hero, and therefore, the value of the company is at risk of tanking when they (inevitably) lose their current one for good.

Now, I know that every innovation consultant and every report on innovation will tell you you must have “executive support” at the highest level if you want your innovation efforts to succeeed. But actually, that’s thinking which steers you towards relying on innovation heroes to get things done.

My experience is any innovation programme that’s generating real returns burns through its supply of heroes at a ferocious rate, and eventually you spend more time worrying about where you’re going to get the next one than actually doing innovation itself.

That is not a sustainable approach. You get short term returns – maybe even windfall ones – but you’re going to fail eventually when you run out of people to use up. What is the percentage of senior people you can reach who actually care about innovation anyway?

That’s why I believe innovation needs to move on from heroes. Or maybe what I mean can be stated differently: innovation programmes need to focus on making everyone heroes.

The implication of this is significant of course, because it means you can’t construct success using the aura of a senior leader to get things done. Instead, you’ve got to find ways of doing without, on finding ways to let everyone be innovative. The hardest part, I think, is the people who would have been innovation heroes in the old model, are often the same ones who’ll resist diffusing innovation to the edge of organisations in order to avoid losing control.

So maybe what I’m saying is we need a new kind of innovation hero. Maybe what’s really needed is a hero who believes making more heroes is the most important kind of heroism of all.

4 Responses to“A new kind of innovation hero”

  1. February 23, 2011 at 2:27 pm #

    Hi James.

    Loved your post and responded here:
    http://innovateonpurpose.blogspot.com/2011/02/we-dont-need-another-hero.html

    • James Gardner
      March 21, 2011 at 12:48 pm #

      Thanks so much for the comment – and I loved your post in response as well.

  2. June 23, 2012 at 12:05 am #

    You actually make it appear really easy together with your presentation however I in finding this topic to be actually one thing that I feel I would by no means understand. It sort of feels too complex and very extensive for me. I am taking a look forward for your next put up, I’ll try to get the hold of it!

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