An inconvenient truth about transformational innovation


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Seymourpowell Associate Director Simon Rucker explores breakthrough innovation.

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An inconvenient truth about transformational innovation

  1. 1. An inconvenienttruth abouttransformationalinnovation
  2. 2. “...if you want to innovate something really transformational you’d better be in an organisation that’s designed to support, not merely tolerate, someone as challenging as Steve Jobs, otherwise forget it.” SIMON RUCKER Head of Strategy at SeymourpowellReading Walter Issacson’s biography of Steve Jobs over I can’t help thinking that Steve Jobs, had he not sadly passedChristmas I was struck by many things. But having finished away, could have turned his hand to many other things beyondthe book, what lingered was the realisation that if you want to the production of beguiling consumer electronics and digitalinnovate something really transformational you’d better be in content. He might have applied his considerable talents toan organisation that’s designed to support, not merely tolerate, household appliances, or FMCG, or cars – in fact any categorysomeone as challenging as Jobs, otherwise forget it. that exists in the intersection of technology and human needs.I know that many of you reading that last sentence will haveautomatically reached for your mental lexicon of moderninnovation thinking. “No Simon…”, you’ll be saying, “that’s nothow it works these days: it’s all about flat structures; empathy;co-creation…” – you know the stuff.But are you sure? It may make the process more pleasant, more whilst this modern work culturefun, but I also think it’s a recipe for being an innovation also-ran.And before I get a torrent of success stories to show me how supports the gentle evolution ofwrong I am – the results of ‘nice’ innovation processes – I’m not the status quo... it stifles thetalking about incremental stuff; I’m talking about the sort of big,bold, necessary innovations that issues around globalisation necessary disruption ofand sustainability are demanding from us now. I struggle to thinkof any examples that were engendered by fairness, politeness transformational innovation.and generally getting along with everybody.Confidential. © Seymour Powell Limited, 2012. All rights reserved.
  3. 3. Ironically anybody in charge of innovation in these areas alwaysseems to kick-off an initiative with a variation on: “We want tobe the Apple/ iPod/ iPhone of xxx”. But whenever I hear peopleinvoking the spirit of Apple, it always brings to mind the Irish joke,“well, if that’s where you want to go, I wouldn’t start from here…” ...the lack of a singular, visionaryThe reality is that neither Jobs’ uncompromising managementstyle, nor the sort of unconventional processes he used at and frankly autocratic someone inApple to re-define the music, personal computer and phone charge is one of the biggestindustries would survive long in most organisations today, letalone receive the sort of support that would allow them to thrive. reasons why transformationalBut why? initiatives lose focus...I think the reason can be found in the cultures that predominatein big organisations. The last 30 years have been pretty goodto them. The recipe for success during that period consisted The resulting processes, perspectives and values (all articulatedin most cases of maintaining a status quo in the face of and reinforced by generous helpings of management theory)manageable and predictable change. Not surprisingly those have become deeply embedded in our understanding of howorganisations have been structured, staffed and run with work should be. Innovation practice (and theory), being a subsetstability, efficiency and (gradual) optimisation in mind, though of that, has been similarly influenced. But whilst this modernthe latter has always been shot through with a large amount of work culture supports the gentle evolution of the status quorisk aversion. and makes organisations nicer, more efficient places to work, it stifles the necessary disruption of transformational innovation. The fact is that even with the challenges of accelerating and increasingly unpredictable change, many organisations still have too much to lose to let the necessary flux, dissent and...we realise that the process dangerous ideas of the transformational innovation process loose. And for those organisations whose core businesses areof getting to the best answer, unwell – think Sony, or indeed any of Japan’s major electronicsdecision or solution is painful. groups; think the music industry; think Motorola – even they can’t seem to take their medicine.It requires a robust constitution I think the pervasiveness of the nicely-nicely work culture hasand thick skin; a belief in a lot to do with it. And similarly, it acts to slow and obfuscate the transformational innovation process because it thinkssomething bigger... work should be fun, inclusive and nice. It recoils at the difficult situations, demands and emotions that it throws up.Confidential. © Seymour Powell Limited, 2012. All rights reserved.
  4. 4. We have a saying in my team (a paraphrase of a slogan most the biggest reasons why transformational initiatives lose focus,recently used by the Conservative party in the UK), “Yes it hurts. become lowest, rather than highest, common denominator andYes it works!” It means that we realise that the process of getting ultimately founder. But the fact is, today’s nicely-nicely workto the best answer, decision or solution is painful. It requires a culture reacts to people like Mr Jobs the same way a healthyrobust constitution and thick skin; a belief in something bigger body’s immune system does with foreign bodies or pathogens.than simply a desire to climb the greasy pole/ make a quick It neutralises or drives them out.buck/ just be seen to do something; and dogged persistence Steve Jobs clearly wasn’t the easiest of people to work with. But(Edison always said that it was 1% inspiration and 99% he was the sort of brilliant, visionary, entrepreneurial individualperspiration). organisations need, now more than ever.In fact there is a lot of similarity between Messrs Jobs and The real challenge for organisations trying to innovateEdison (one of the most prolific innovators ever). Some of the transformationally is not about having better insights, or IP; it’slatter’s less well-known characteristics included insisting on providing the type of structure, resources, governance andhaving the final say, ruthlessly taking credit for and ownership culture that actually enable the Jobses of the world to do whatof other people’s work and regularly driving his Menlo Park they’re great at. And that is a transformation that most modernemployees to breaking point. In other words, he was also a organisations are seemingly unable to make.‘challenging personality’, albeit an extremely charismatic one. Itprobably helped that he was the boss. Sound familiar?I’ve been advising organisations on transformational innovation To find out more please contactfor a decade now and in my opinion, the lack of a singular, Tim Duncan - tim.duncan@seymourpowell.comvisionary and frankly autocratic someone in charge is one ofConfidential. © Seymour Powell Limited, 2012. All rights reserved.