Innovation and autocracy

I’ve long believed that innovation is never just about (or even) about new ideas, funky office spaces, flat hierarchies, skunks works ventures or ‘open-ended’ brainstorming sessions. Instead it’s about structure, process and culture – and, ultimately, leadership.

This piece on a HBR blog by Simon Rucker articulates this view quite well:

I’ve been advising organizations on transformational innovation for a decade now, and in my opinion, the lack of a singular, visionary — and frankly autocratic — someone in charge is one of the biggest reasons why transformational initiatives lose focus, seek the lowest common denominator, and ultimately fall short.

Steve Jobs clearly wasn’t the easiest of people to work with. But he was the sort of
brilliant, visionary, entrepreneurial individual organizations need, now more than ever.
The real challenge for organizations trying to innovate transformationally is not finding better insights or developing better intellectual property. The real challenge is providing the type of structure, resources, governance, and culture that actually enable the abrasive, original Steve Jobses of the world to do what they’re great at.

And that is a transformation that most modern organizations are seemingly unable to make.

However, I think he probably puts the cart before the horse. What’s becoming clearer as anatomies of Jobs’ leadership come to the surface is that he fashioned a highly autocratic and disciplined organisation that allow his creative vision to be realised. Many other companies entrust the work of innovation to the wider workforce but then don’t have the structural form or cultural norms in place to harness it. Ideas flourish but focus is never realised. Oceans of innovative thinking sit unconstrained throughout an organisation but there’s no organisational form to contain and channel it.

The genius of Jobs was his discipline not his creativity.