“I didn’t get to where I am today by being innovative”

The innovation agenda appears to be high on the minds of much of British management. How can our organisations become more effective, more competitive, sustain themselves in the face of the global onslaught?

But if you look at the profiles of the people (mostly men) at the top of British organisations, then, well, how can I put this? They’re mostly a little bit conservative. You don’t get to be at the top of an established public company by being an iconoclast – you get there by working hard, having a few breaks, and predominantly not rocking the boat.

There are of course some exceptions, and founder-managers are almost certainly risk takers. But the ranks of former accountants who lead the FTSE250… well, the words innovative qualified accountant are more than a little oxymoronic.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s just a thing that’s worth calling out. It’s important to identify, because of the importance of role modelling. People inevitably look to the top for indications of how to behave, and if the explicit message is “innovate” when the implicit message is the opposite – well, cognitive dissonance (and probably inertia) that way lies.

This of course is one of the reasons why big organisations often outsource the tricky business of innovation through acquisition. But that in turn has strange impacts on the innovative capability in our economy overall: if the main credible exit strategy for startups is acquisition, funds will follow the ideas that are likely to be acquired. That means that the user needs that are important, ultimately, are those of big corporates on an acquisition trail. The way in which acquisition leads often to dissolution of teams and products makes that particularly odd.

There are a couple of individuals who maybe buck this conservative trend: the inevitable entrepreneur Richard Branson, and the effective founder of WPP Martin Sorrell. One group is private, one public. Both have been organisations that have acquired voraciously (although Virgin at very early stages and more at an ideas than companies level). Both have one trait in common: they operate in a fairly federal way where constituent parts of the organisation are left to get on with their thing. That in itself it a fairly innovative approach…

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