The Critical Roles of Innovation Champions, Skunkworks and Organization Learning

In today's interconnected and interdependent organizations even the most passionate and effective champion needs support and resources.

Advertising executive, Charles Brower once said, “A new idea is delicate. It can be killed by a sneer or a yawn; it can be stabbed to death by a quip and worried to death by a frown on the right person’s brow.” When innovations are in the exploration stage, they need a champion to take them through the rest of the developmental stages. Otherwise the bureaucracy, politics, and people who can only see the fledgling and potential innovation through today’s glasses will smother it or let it quietly die from malnourishment.

Peter Drucker defines a champion as “a monomaniac with a mission.” It’s a good way to describe the passionate, visionary leadership that an innovation needs if it’s going to get someone to protect, nurture and fight for the resources to give the new idea a chance to try and prove itself. The more radical the change, the stronger, more forceful, and persistent its champion must be. Studies repeatedly show that most successful innovations were led by, often fanatical, champions.

“Every new opinion, at its starting, is precisely in a minority of one.” - Thomas Carlyle, 19th century British essayist and historian

In today’s interconnected and interdependent organizations even the most passionate and effective champion needs support and resources. He or she can’t possibly do it alone. But since most innovations upset the established order, “going through regular channels” will lead to almost certain death.

So champions often find, organize, or attract to them like-minded fanatics or believers. These groups are often called “skunkworks.” In his classic Harvard Business Review article, Controlled Chaos, James Brian Quinn writes, “every highly innovative enterprise in my research sample emulated small company practices by using groups that functioned in a skunkworks style.”

These ad hoc groups of turned on innovators are what management consultant and author Bob Waterman, refers to in his book, Adhocracy. He writes “adhocracy is any organization form that challenges the bureaucracy in order to embrace the new. It cuts through organizational charts, departments, functions, job descriptions, hierarchy, and tradition like a hot knife through butter. . . ad hoc organizational forms are the most powerful tools we have for effecting change” (his emphasis).

Don Frey has been vice president of product development at Ford, CEO of Bell & Howell, a management professor, and was awarded the National Technology Medal by president George Bush. In his article, “Learning the Ropes: My Life as a Product Champion,” he writes about his experience as part of Lee Iacocca’s hugely successful Mustang development team, “I learned the never-to-be-forgotten importance of how a few believers with no initial sanction, no committee, no formal market research, and no funds could change a company’s fate.”

Organizational learning: We can’t have innovation without it

“It is no longer sufficient to have one person learning for the organization, a Ford or a Sloan or a Watson. It’s just not possible any longer to ‘figure it out’ from the top, and have everyone else following the orders of the ‘grand strategist.’ The organizations that will truly excel in the future will be the organizations that will truly tap people’s commitment and capacity to learn at all levels in an organization” (his emphasis). — Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of The Learning Organization

I am as fervently in favor of “the learning organization” as I am of individual learning. You can’t have innovation and higher performance without learning. And Senge is right, organization improvement can no longer depend on a few key leaders. But like “change management,” teams, empowerment, reengineering, quality improvement and a host of other popular organization programs, “the learning organization” often becomes a means not an end in itself. It’s not a destination; it’s a main thoroughfare on the road to higher performance.

That’s why “the learning organization” can be such a fuzzy a concept. It can be too theoretical. We can’t argue with many of the models and paradigms. But too much of this work is written for academics and philosophers, not practicing managers.

When it comes to both organization and personal innovation and learning, the problem isn’t a lack of failures and clumsy tries. It’s that most individuals, teams, and organizations don’t cash in on their experience. They’re learning impaired. It’s not a question of ability or IQ points — some of the brightest people have crippling learning disabilities. It’s an implementation problem.

Many managers, teams, and organizations haven’t developed the disciplined habit or an effective process for systematically studying, reviewing, revising, and retrying in a continuous cycle. As the revolutions of this learning cycle add up, continuous improvements and innovations — higher performance — result. Countless studies on highly successful individuals, teams, and organizations continue to show that ability and aptitude certainly help. But these factors pale in comparison to application power. What we know is less important than what we do with what we know.

Reprinted with the permission of Jim Clemmer whose practical leadership & personal growth books, workshops, and team retreats have helped hundreds of thousands of people worldwide improve personal, team, and organizational performance. An international best-selling author, his latest book is Growing @ the Speed of Change. Visit http://www.jimclemmer.com/ for more information on his books, monthly newsletter, and leadership blog.

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