Boss of an innovator is also an innovator

posted by Ravi Arora July 13, 2018

What is common between Bill Gates and Steve Jobs? They are founders of most innovative companies. What is common between Jeff Bezos and Wright brothers? They appear in the list of most famous innovators. What is common between 3M and facebook? They appear in the list of most innovative companies!

If you search for the most famous innovators, the list would be dominated by two types of people: Founders of companies and Scientists or inventors. A century ago, scientists use to dominate this list but in the last few decades the list carries founders of companies – especially those that are digitally influenced. Why do innovators working in established companies do not appear in this list? Don’t these companies innovate? Let us probe this in some details and start with the definition of an innovator.

As per Cambridge, innovator is a person who develops a new design, product, etc. or who has new ideas about how to do something. As per Collins, an innovator is someone who introduces changes and new ideas. Both these definitions point to an individual, especially the one who had the idea. Every brilliant idea needs a team to execute or implement the idea during which the ideas gets refined many times over. Founders of those successful startup companies that are based on a new idea qualify to be innovator as per this definition as they hire their teams to execute their idea.

Once an innovative startup company is established, the world continues to attribute its future innovations to the founder for a few years/decades and then starts recognizing the company for all its innovations (Apple, Microsoft, 3M). Do you think all future innovations from such companies (eg Amazon, Facebook etc) necessarily originate from the founder of the company? I beg to differ. There would be innovative employees in these company who rarely get highlighted. Patents do carry the names of inventors – but inventions are never celebrated.

Let’s take two examples of innovations from two different companies. Both the innovations are large enough to have created a new startup. Who innovated iPod which later served as the base for iPhone? Was it Jon Rubinstein or Tony Fadell or Phil Schiller or Jeff Robbin or Tim Wasko or Michael Dhuey or the free-lancer Vinnie Chieco or Jonathan Ive or Steve Jobs? Who was the innovator of Post-it notes:  Spencer Sliver or Art Fry or Geoff Nicholson or someone else we don’t know? Unfortunately, the answer is – Apple and 3M! 3M took 10 years to successfully commercialize the glue that Spencer invented accidently and Art Fry used it as song page markers in his hymn book. Who are these people who contributed to these two innovations?

Established companies typically promote those managers who are able to manage teams effectively to deliver better results quarter after quarter. Managers’ growth in the organization depends on their impeccable ability to deliver predicted results. Under the pressure of delivering results promised to analysts in a fiercely competitive world, managers find it difficult to engage themselves on innovations. But deep in their heart, they know that innovations are exciting to work on and are important for future success.  Given the opportunity and environment, they would be willing to pursue innovation projects. Established companies who are known to be innovative, have found a way to make this happen. In these companies, managers allow their team members to take lead for an innovation and provide them with all the necessary support including freeing up resources. The two examples of iPod and Post It show that Steve jobs and Geoff Nicholson provided this freedom and support. It is not necessary that the manager or the boss has to be CEO or a CxO. Every manager, depending upon his/her authority and area of influence could play this role of enabling their teams to innovate.

If managers or bosses or superiors allow and enable their team members to try their hands at innovations and insulate them from the adverse repercussions in case of failures, similar to founders of startups, they should be formally known as innovators! They do a far difficult job than the startup founders as managers in established companies have to perform two roles: Generate predicted cash flows every quarter from their operations (manager)  and second take risk by investing in innovations that will define the future success (VC and also founder of startup).

In one of my earlier posts I explained that Innovations are always top down and all managers should enable their people to innovate. This will happen more if organizations redefine innovators as:

Innovator is a person who either himself develops a new design, product, process or enables someone else to do the same in his/her area of control or influence.