The CEO’s Innovation
By G. Michael Maddock
and Raphael Louis Vitón
September 13, 2010
When chief executives yell “innovation”
in the forest, but their management
teams cover their ears, did they really
yell anything at all?
The news cameras roll as the chief executive of one of
the nation’s largest companies boldly outlines his well-
thought-out, incredibly detailed vision for changing his
dinosaur industry. “Innovation will be the cornerstone
on which we build our future,” he says. “For too long, we
have relied on our great brand, loyal customers and fine
workforce to carry the day. But the world is changing,
and our customers and shareholders are counting on us
to deliver new products and services. Our competitors
haven’t recognized this fact. But we have. So from this
day forward, I commit to create a culture of innovation.
We will be known as the company that reinvented the
The next day, a huge plaque is hung in the corporate
lobby that boldly proclaims, “Core Value No. 1: Innova-
tion.” And you can tell that the CEO believes this with
all his heart. Like Paul on the road to Damascus, he has
seen the light. In the aftermath of the announcement,
we at Maddock Douglas applaud. (Innovation is our
business, after all.) Wall Street applauds — and the stock
price rises. And there is a renewed optimism among
the rank and file in the halls of the sleepy company.
And then something unfortunate happens.
Nothing. Nothing happens. Nothing at all.
After a blizzard of memos outlining what the “new”
company is going to look like, everything stays
the same. Why? Blame it on the inevitable outcome
when a bull meets a grizzly bear — and a bunch of
its friends — in the woods.
Surrounded by Bears
In the world of investments, there are bears, and there
are bulls. The bears say things are going to get worse,
and the bulls optimistically and aggressively place bets
that not only won’t that be the case, but also everything
is going to get better. (“We can reinvent our industry.”)
In the world of corporate innovation, the CEO is often a
bull who makes the unfortunate mistake of surrounding
himself or herself with bears.
We love bullish CEOs, but we’re pretty sick of working
with bears. They tend to nod a lot in meetings and then
passive aggressively do everything in their power to
keep any significant change from happening. To the
CEO’s face, they say the truly needed innovation effort is,
in fact, truly needed. When the CEO is out of sight, they
whisper to everyone in the senior ranks that things are
just fine as they are. (We all here on the executive level
have jobs, don’t we?)
It is incredible how many companies are run by bulls
who surround themselves with bears, and “surround”
is the right word. The pure-of-heart CEO is hopelessly
outnumbered. And so nothing happens.
For fans of innovation, this is like a football team owner
who promises the Super Bowl but spends no money on
free agency. Eventually the fans — the stockholders, the
partners, the employees — give up. They stop believing.
They find another team.
What is to be done?
Mike Maddock, CEO
Some Helpful Tips
We know this column could come across as a bit cynical.
But we are truly hopeless optimists, so let’s get to some
solutions. If you are a bullish CEO or a bullish innovator
within the ranks, here are a few tips that will absolutely
make your corporate life better — and more fulfilling.
Let’s start with counsel for the CEOs:
Recruit believers. Henry Ford said, “If you believe you
can or believe you can’t, you’re right.” If you have people
on your staff who don’t really believe change is possible
or that the old way is good enough, for God’s sake,
release them to find a more fulfilling destiny. If you don’t
have the guts to do it, then please stop saying you are
going to change the world. Because your people simply
won’t let it happen, and you are going to look like a fool.
Hire objective senior managers. This is a nice way
of saying you should bring in leaders from outside
Albert Einstein said, “One should not expect to solve a
problem with the same level of intelligence that caused
it.” Einstein was really smart (about management, as
it turns out). If you have people leading your research,
marketing and strategy group with a combined 40 years
of industry experience, they are about to help you break
your promise to your shareholders. Said differently, they
are rolling their eyes at you. “You don’t get it,” they are
saying behind your back. They know the rules. They
know what’s possible. They know what can and can’t
be done. They can and will bend the data to prove their
points. Meanwhile, a competitive team with a combined
zero years of industry experience is about to reinvent
your industry. These people are going to deliver on the
promise you made to Wall Street. You must go find those
really smart, really capable, really courageous risk takers
and offer them jobs. They will get it done. They will
help you keep your promise. They believe. Most of your
current team does not.
Promote failure. Entrepreneurs understand that each
small failure brings them closer to the solution. So find
ways to demand lots of baby-step failures that promote
learning and create a culture of action. This will get you
to the finish line and keep fear of failure from locking up
your innovation engine.
Now onto the innovation leaders who report directly
to the CEO. Listen to the youngsters. They can see
things you cannot. Remember when you used to be the
youngest person in the room and all the terrific ideas
you had (but had problems getting implemented)?
Take this advice:
Fail forward. Get into the habit of creating many
experiments and celebrating the learning. For example:
“In this experiment we learned that people did not
understand our offer.” “In this experiment we learned
we were charging too much.” And “in this experiment we
learned that the button had to be in a different place.”
Each “failure” is actually a success, because the team
has learned something important and has moved one
more step closer toward getting it right.
Control the framing. Every company has its own
language when it comes to the innovation process. Many
times this language has been linked to past projects.
For example, the last team that created a “working
prototype” may have overinvested in the experience
and created unrealistic expectations for your team.
That’s why we encourage you to invent your own
innovation language. For example, calling something
a “feedback concept” may be better than calling it a
working prototype. If you control the language, you
control the expectations.
Quit. If you find yourself so afraid, so burned-out, so
cynical that you can’t believe a big idea is about to
happen, it is time to move on to the next challenge. You
have the smarts, the experience, the skills to become
an amazing change agent in another industry. Go find
it. Your new peers will be amazed at how you can see
things that they can’t and have the solutions that have
When it comes to innovation, we are bearish on bears
and bullish on bulls. We think you should be, too.
One last thing. If you have a favorite example of a company
run by a bull and staffed with bears, tell us about it by
sending an e-mail to Stephanie.firstname.lastname@example.org.
We may do a column on it, we may alert its CEO, or we
may just dump its stock.
G. Michael Maddock is chief executive, and Raphael
Louis Vitón is president of Maddock Douglas, an
innovation consultancy that helps clients invent,
brand and launch new products, services and business
models. Maddock is author of the upcoming book
Brand New: Solving the Innovation Paradox —
How Great Brands Invent and Launch New Products,
Services and Business Models (Wiley, April 2011).