Put your Best People on Innovation

Many businesses make the mistake of giving innovation projects to junior executives. It seems natural to hand innovation opportunities to enthusiastic and promising upstarts. But generally it is the experienced heavyweights who can overcome all the process and political obstacles that will occur, explains Paul Sloane.

Many businesses make the mistake of giving innovation projects to junior executives. It seems natural to hand innovation opportunities to enthusiastic and promising upstarts. But generally it is the experienced heavyweights who can overcome all the process and political obstacles that will occur.

In September 1999 Lou Gerstner, CEO of IBM, read a line buried deep in a report which said that current quarter pressures had forced a business unit to cut costs by stopping efforts in a promising new area. Gerstner was incensed and wanted to find out how often this happened. He asked J. Bruce Herrald, IBM’s senior VP in charge of Strategy to find out. Herrald found a similar pattern in at least 22 other cases. IBM had plenty of new ideas but it had a remarkably hard time turning those ideas into businesses. IBM had produced many crucial inventions, such as the relational database and the router, then watched while others, such as Oracle and Cisco built huge companies around them.

Herrald investigated the causes and found that IBM rewarded short-term results and was reluctant to devote management attention and resources to rolling the dice. IBM’s leaders did not spend much time on new businesses and they did not tap their “A-team” of executives to run them. “We were relegating this to the most inexperienced people,” said Herrald. “We were not putting the best and brightest talent on this.” (Quotes from FastCompany magazine, March 2005 issue)

Gerstner and Herrald reversed this approach. They deliberately put their most experienced and talented executives in charge of Emerging Business Opportunities (EBOs). Their mission was to find areas that are new to IBM that can yield profitable billion-dollar-plus businesses in five to seven years. The program has been a remarkable success. Between 2000 and 2005 IBM launched 25 EBOs. Three failed and were closed down but the remaining 22 produced annual revenues of over $15 billion and growth of over 40% per year.

More importantly than their revenue impact, the EBOs helped change IBM’s culture. “We’ve become more willing to experiment, more willing to accept failure, learn from it and move on. Now being an EBO leader is a really desirable job at IBM,” says Herrald.

The lesson from IBM is clear. If you want to change the culture of an organisation so that it values innovation and new business start-ups then get your most senior and best people involved in these activities. Don’t delegate it to lower level staff and hope for the best.

By Paul Sloane

About the author

Paul Sloane is the author of The Leader’s Guide to Lateral Thinking Skills and The Innovative Leader. He writes, talks and runs workshops on lateral thinking, creativity and the leadership of innovation. Find more information at destination-innovation.com.

 

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