“If you wish to kill innovation, hand it over to R&D!”

by Didier Marlier on Saturday October 25th, 2014

Did I wake you up, especially if you run R&D in your organization? Do not take this provocation too personally. In the 80’s, at the highlight of the TQM (Total Quality Management) wave, the qualiticians themselves used that joke: “If you wish to kill quality, create a Quality Department!”

And this provocation is valid for strategy, marketing, finances and even… leadership (Goldman Sachs is reported to have created, years ago, a “Leadership Department” to take care of its leadership related challenges…). So, if R&D shouldn’t be solely responsible for innovation in an organization, who else should be?

Jay Rao, Professor of Technology and Operations Management at Babson College, is very clear about it:

  • It is not ideas that drive innovation: it is the culture of the organization
  • Innovation can happen only when there is an insight
  • Insight only happens when you have a large enough body of people inside the corporation, thinking about the future, taking ideas and testing them for opportunities, creating deep relationships with your current customers and going and understanding your non and future customers.

When I first met Jay, in a New-York seminar for one of our joint clients, I was delighted to hear him preach that true performance did not come from sophisticated intellectual models but from culture and behaviours. And, if Hay consultants research, dating from the early 2000, still holds true, 70% of an organization’s culture is directly traceable to the behavior of its significant leaders.

Jay, from his privileged observer position (he works around the world for top enterprises), has seen the evolution caused by the Disruption Economy. If, in the old days, the brains of bright people working in their silos were sufficient to bring innovation to their existing markets, today, says he “You can’t think of innovation as siloed away in a corner of your organization. Today, the only thing that leaders can do is to create a climate where people can naturally be creative”.

Which behaviours, which cultures should leaders adopt, in order to transform their stiff, siloed, brain dead organizations into vibrant, creative and optimistic organisms? Philippe Bobin (and ex Olympics athlete, in charge now of the development of the “top 500” at Solvay), with whom I once co-authored an article in “L’Expansion Management Review”, has produced an elegant and simple model:

  • A demanding culture is a must. Competition and raising the bar challenges people to give the best they can. The French have a saying: “Idleness (read laziness, complacency) is the mother of all vices”. Being a demanding leader who questions, demonstrates critical thinking, pushes people to stretch themselves by challenging the status quo, identifying orthodoxies and making courageous choices, will transform the culture along the Demanding axis.
  • But, the critical corollary to a demanding culture is benevolence. Leaders who can only play on the demanding string of their instrument do, in fact, destroy value. I am always in shock to see the intelligence and time wasted by people in order to polish a perfect presentation to their board by fear to be shot down in flames. Such meetings, resembling at school exams rarely create an adult-adult dialogue. Too often, do I still witness intelligent and mature executives spending their attention and enormous experience, “guessing what the boss wants to hear” rather than telling them… the truth. Who is responsible for that? It is pretty much a two way street (“Leaders have the followers they deserve and followers have the leaders they deserve as well”). A leader has to create connection, must “kill the fear” around him, reduce the “power distance” between him and his team if he is to create a truly daring, entrepreneurial culture in his organization.
  • As none of us will be able to reach this through willpower only and that some psychologists suggest it takes up to 50 feedback for an adult to change a deeply engrained habit, installing a feedback culture is critical, in order to ensure that the significant leaders display a demanding and benevolent attitude.

R&D will always be needed as a department, function, pole or center of excellence, whether as a corporate or B.U. dependent function of course. And the same will apply to all other functions that provide specific expertise. But subcontracting your strategic capacities exclusively to a Strategy Department, or the customer intimacy to the sole Marketing function, or the vital health indicators of finance, to a Finance Organization or expect that your R&D department will be held accountable for the creativity and innovation inside your company, will not be the way to create the organism of the Future, which the Disruption Economy demands. Changing your culture to one of high demand/high benevolence will.

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One Response to ““If you wish to kill innovation, hand it over to R&D!””

  1. Dear Didier
    Read with much attention and interest your weekly article and this one is specially true
    Best regards


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