THE PRACTICE OF INNOVATION
Peter Drucker has elegantly presented the three ingredients of the discipline of innovation: focus on mission, define significant results, and do rigorous assessment. But if it sounds so simple, why is it so difficult for institutions to innovate?
There are two possible explanations, representing dramatically different worldviews. These opposing outlooks were first clarified nearly 40 years ago by Douglas McGregor in his groundbreaking Human Side of Enterprise: Theory X (employees as unreliable and uncommitted, chasing a paycheck) versus Theory Y (employees as responsible adults wanting to contribute).
One possibility for difficulties innovating is that most people really don’t care about innovation. After all, Theory X is still the prevailing philosophy in most large institutions – certainly in the American corporate world. Few people in positions of authority would admit to that view, but our practices belie our espoused values. If we look honestly at how organizations manage people, most appear to operate with the belief that people cannot work without careful supervision. As Arie de Geus has shown in his recent book The Living Company, we treat the business enterprise as a machine for making money rather than as a living community. Consequently, we view people as “human resources” waiting to be employed (or disemployed) to the organizations’ needs. (The word resource literally means “standing in reserve, waiting to be used.”)
From the Theory X perspective, institutions fail to innovate because most people lack the desire to innovate; forget Drucker’s theory of innovation. The answer to that problem is simple: find more capable people. But that’s a never-ending story. “We don’t have the right people.” is an excuse that suits all times and all circumstances; it is a refuge for scoundrels. All times and all circumstances; it is a refuge for scoundrels. Moreover, it obscures leaders’ fundamental task of helping people do more together than they could individually.
If, on the other hand, we take the Theory Y perspective, that most people come to work (or at least came to work at one time) truly desiring to make a difference, to gain, as Peter Drucker puts it, a “return on their citizenship,” then the failure to innovate becomes a bigger puzzle. It cannot be laid off on not having the right people. It must have more to do with why Peter Drucker’s three core practices are more difficult than meets the eye. It requires that we try to understand how it is that good people, desiring to learn and innovate, can consistently fail to produce that they intend.
Know Your Purpose
We can start by inquiring into what we mean by mission anyway. It is very hard to focus on what you cannot define, and my experience is that there can be some very fuzzy thinking about mission, vision, and values.
Most organizations today have mission statements, purpose statements, official visions, and little cards with the organization’s values. But precious few of us can say our organization’s values. But precious few of us can say our organization’s mission statement has transformed the enterprise. And there has grown an understandable cynicism around lofty ideals that don’t match the realities of organizational life.
The first obstacle to understanding mission is a problem of language. Many leaders use mission and vision interchangeable, or think that the words – and the differences between them – matter little. But words do matter. Language between them – matter little. But words do matter. Language is messy by nature, which is why we must be careful in how we use it. As leaders, after all, we have little else to work we use it. As leaders, after all, we have little else to work with. We typically don’t use hammers and saws, heavy equipment, or even computers to do our real work. The essence of leadership – what we do with 98 percent of our time – is communication. To master any management practice, we must start by bringing discipline to the domain in which we spend most of our time, the domain of words.
The dictionary – which, unlike the computer, is an essential leadership tool – contains multiple definitions of the word mission; the most appropriate here is, “purpose, reason for being.” Vision, by contrast, is “a picture or image of the future we seek to create,” and values articulate how we intend to live as we pursue our mission. Paradoxically, if an organization’s mission is truly motivating it is never really achieved. Mission provides an orientation, not a checklist of accomplishments. It defines a direction, not a destination. It tells the members of an organization why they are working together, how they intend to contribute to the world. Without a sense of mission, there is no foundation for establishing why some intended results are more important than others.
But, there is a big difference between having a mission statement and being truly mission-based. To be truly mission-based means that key decisions can be referred back to the mission – our reason for being. It means that people can and should object to management edicts that they do not see as connected to the mission. It means that thinking about and continually clarifying the mission is everybody’s job because, as de Geus points out, it expresses the aspirations and fundamental identity of a human community. By contrast, most mission statements are nice ideas that might have some meaning for a few but communicate little to the community as a whole. In most organizations, no one would dream of challenging a management decision on the grounds that it does not serve the mission. In other words, most organizations serve those in power rather than a mission.
This also gives some clue as to why being mission-based is so difficult. It gets to the core of power and authority. It is profoundly radical. It says, in essence, those in positions of authority are not the source of authority. It says rather, that the source of legitimate power in the organization is its guiding ideas. Remember, “We hold these truths to be self evident…”? The cornerstone of a truly democratic system of governance is not voting or any other particular mechanism. It is the belief that power ultimately flows from ideas, not people. To be truly mission-based is to be democratic in this way, to make the mission more important than the boss, something that not too many corporations have yet demonstrated an ability to do.
While this might appeal to our ideals, living this way is extraordinarily challenging. We are all closet authoritarians. For most of us it is the only system of management we have every known, starting in school. To be mission-based, and to be values-guided, is to hold up lofty standards against which every person’s behavior can be judged. Moreover, mission is inherently fuzzy, abstract. It is so much easier to make decisions based on “the number,” habit, and unexamined emotions. TO be mission-based requires everyone to think continuously.
The second requirement for innovation – define results – is easier in some ways. Managers by nature are pragmatic; ultimately they are concerned about results and must concentrate o how, not just why. The danger is that short-term goals can obscure larger purposes. Here again, language matters. After all, vision – an image of the future we seek to create – is synonymous with intended results. As such, vision is a practical tool, not an abstract concept. Visions can be long term or intermediate term. Multiple visions can coexist, capturing complementary facets of what people seek to create and encompassing different time frames. Leaders who lack vision fail to define what they hope to accomplish in terms that can ultimately be assessed. While mission is foundational, it is also insufficient because, by its nature, it is extraordinarily difficult to assess how we are doing by looking only at the mission. For this we need to stick our necks out and articulate, “An image of the future we seek to create.”
Results-oriented leaders, therefore, must have both a mission and a vision. Results mean little without purpose, for a very practical and powerful reason: a mission instills both the passion and the patience for the long journey. While vision inspires passion, many failed ventures are characterized by passion without patience.
Clarity about mission and vision is both an operational and a spiritual necessity. Mission provides a guiding star, a long-term purpose that allows you to balance the inevitable pressures between the short term and the long term. Vision translates mission into truly meaningful intended results – and guides the allocation of time, energy, and resources. In my experience, it is only through a compelling vision that a deep sense of purpose comes alive. People’s passions flow naturally into creating something that truly excites them. Taken together, mission and vision fill a deep need: All human beings have a purpose, a reason for being. Most of us believe that there is something more important than what you can buy, acquire, or market. The passion at the heart of every great undertaking comes from the deep longing of human beings to make a difference, to have an impact. It comes from what you contribute rather than what you get.
The third dimension of innovation is assessment. We must continually gauge how we can best use our scarce resources. As managers we all know what assessing is about; it’s one of the fundamental activities of all management.
Assessment has two components: measurement and interpretation. The problem is that the second and more difficult component of assessment – interpretation – requires understanding, participation, and physical presence. Statistical measure of an activity may be disappointing but if you’re actually involved, you may see that people are engaged and learning. They may be on the brink of a breakthrough. Incomplete or premature assessment destroys learning. Assessment is fundamentally about awareness and understanding without which any set of measures can mislead. Someone sitting on the outside judging, rather than fully understanding, can make effective assessment impossible.
Chris Argyris, in his 1991 Harvard Business Review article “Teaching Smart People How to Learn” lays out a basic problem of learning in organizations. He notes that most people in organizations are quite smart, but that to succeed, they’ve learned to find correct answers and cover up incorrect ones. This undermines the inquiry skills essential to real innovation and leadership because these skills revolve around how to “uncover” what isn’t working in ways that do not invoke defensiveness.
Consider this true story: A top management team of exceptionally bright, committed people is discussing key issues facing a major American corporation. In three hours, not a single genuine question is asked. Of course, trivial questions get asked, like “Didn’t we go over this issue two years ago?” Or, “Don’t our experienced sales people disagree with that view?” Or, “When’s lunch? “ Each implies that we are wasting our time with the subject, that we already have the answer.
Genuine inquiry starts when people ask questions to which they do not have an answer. That is rare in organizations. In most large corporations, people rise to the top because they’re very good at a combination of two factors: merit and gamesmanship. IN a good organization the mix may be 50/50; in a great one, 80/20. The problem is that even the best leaders – those who create a terrific impression and get results – actually know very little. I today’s world how could they know much? Obviously, organizations want people at al levels who can produce results. But often the most important act of executive leader ship is the ability to ask a question that hasn’t been asked before, the ability to inquire, not just dictate or advocate. Unfortunately, most people in executive leadership positions are great at advocacy but poor at inquiry.
From Habit to Discipline
Taken together, mission, vision, and assessment create an ecology, a set of fundamental relationships forming the bedrock of real leadership. These tools allow people, regardless of job title, to help shape their future. The failure of Industrial Age institutions to embrace the three components of innovation shows how far there is to go to meet the challenge of the next century. Moreover, Drucker is exactly right that innovation is a “discipline,” a words having its root in the Latin disciplina, on of the oldest words for “to learn.” Many have talent but real learning requires discipline, the process through which we draw out our potential through commitment, practice, passion, patience, and perseverance.