Bill George is Senior Fellow at Harvard Business School, former Chairman & CEO of Medtronic, and author of Discover Your True North.
In 2015, Bob Iger, CEO of Disney (DIS), told his top 400 executives, “The riskiest thing Disney can do is maintain the status quo.” Iger knows that simply leveraging the traditional Disney brands like Mickey Mouse and adding theme parks is insufficient to sustain the company’s growth.
As organizations grow, their capacity for innovation tends to stagnate—as my Harvard Business School colleague Clay Christensen explained in The Innovator’s Dilemma. Iger would not consider himself an innovator in the class of Walt Disney or Steve Jobs, but he is a master at identifying, motivating, and supporting creative leaders.
Why are there so many innovators, but so few innovation leaders?
Today, there are tens of thousands of innovators, but few outstanding innovation leaders. Those companies with innovation leaders at their helm, like Google, Apple, Amazon, Gilead, Disney, 3M, Tesla, and my former company Medtronic, have sustained their growth and performed exceptionally well. Meanwhile, one-time innovation pioneers that lost their mojo (such as Hewlett-Packard) have stagnated.
Startups, smaller companies, and academic institutions currently drive most of our nation’s innovation. It doesn’t have to be this way. Companies like Google (GOOGL), 3M, Disney, and Apple show that corporations can stay creative even as they grow large. Many people call these companies “experts on innovation,” but the truth is a bit more nuanced. These organizations don’t just develop innovative ideas; they develop innovation leaders.
Before Iger became CEO of Disney, his predecessor used a disciplined, “factory-like” process to produce films. Business development teams came up with ideas and then handed them to directors. Iger rearranged the process, placing faith in his creative directors and enabling them to propose original ideas.
Iger isn’t the only leader at Disney inspiring creativity. Disney subsidiary Pixar has two of the world’s finest innovation leaders in Ed Catmull and John Lasseter. Thanks to their leadership, Pixar has created the 12 most successful animated films of all time, including the 2016 Oscar winner, “Inside Out.” After he was fired from Apple (AAPL), Steve Jobs bought controlling interest in Pixar, and he learned first-hand from Catmull and Lasseter how to lead innovators. This experience paved the way for Jobs’ string of successes when he returned to Apple in 1997.
During a corporate board trip I took in 2013 to Pixar with Iger, Catmull, and Lasseter and learned first-hand why they are so successful. We visited their teams—the first-line innovators that create Pixar films – and saw how these innovation leaders interacted with them. Catmull said that as part of the merger, Iger asked him and Lasseter to take over Disney Studios because it had become bureaucratic and slow-moving. In turn, they revived its fortunes – a success which was evident in the popular 2013 film, “Frozen.” Iger didn’t stop with Pixar, though. He later bought Lucasfilm and Marvel Entertainment, and retained their innovation leaders.
Examining Alphabet (nee Google), we see the same caliber of leaders. The former CEOs of Nest, Genentech, and Bloomberg all work for Alphabet. They operate within a common corporate framework because CEO Larry Page, who is himself a great innovation leader, gives them the latitude, resouces, and teams to engage in highly risky projects.
So, what are the key qualities of innovation leaders? What makes them so effective at bringing out the creativity in others? After all, the characteristics of great innovation leaders are dramatically different from traditional business managers. The following seven elements are the key ingredients to innovation leadership.
Passion for innovation. Innovation leaders not only have to appreciate the benefits of innovation, they need a deep passion for innovations that benefit customers. Just approving funds for innovation is insufficient. Leaders must make innovation an essential part of the company’s culture and growth strategy.
A long-term perspective. Most investors think three years is “long-term,” but that won’t yield genuine innovation. Major innovations can change entire markets as the iPod and iTunes did, but they take time to perfect products and gain adoption by mainstream users. Thus innovation leaders are sometimes willing to sacrifice near-term financial results to seize longer-term opportunities.
Companies like Apple and Alphabet find ways to shield their leaders from the day-to-day demands of investors. Google’s “X” runs the moonshot projects of Alphabet, which include driverless cars, drone delivery, and robotics. The division doesn’t measure its success by dollars created. Instead, it focuses on “speed of failure.” By changing the metrics of success, Page and co-founder Sergey Brin are able to balance fiscal discipline with the need to give innovation leaders a safe space to incubate new ideas.
The courage to fail and learn from failure. The risks of innovation are well known, but many leaders aren’t willing to be associated with its failures. However, there is a great deal to be learned from why an innovation has failed, as this enhanced understanding can lead to the greatest breakthroughs. At Medtronic (MDT), our failures with implantable defibrillators in the 1980s led to far more sophisticated approaches to treating heart disease in the 1990s.
Deep engagement with the innovators. Innovation leaders must be highly engaged with their teams, asking questions, probing for potential problems, and looking for ways to accelerate projects and broaden their impact. That’s what HP’s founders Bill Hewlett and David Packard did by wandering around HP’s labs and challenging innovators. My HBS colleague Amy Edmondson says groups where members can air wild ideas are “psychologically safe.” In such settings, participants feel respected even when their ideas are rejected, and they don’t fear airing opposing views. The more failed ideas that come up, they more likely the group will land on a successful one.
Willingness to tolerate mavericks and protect them from middle management. The best innovators are rule-breakers who don’t fit the corporate mold. These people are often threatening to middle managers, many of whom adhere to standard practices. That’s why innovation leaders must protect their mavericks’ projects, budgets, and careers rather than forcing them into traditional management positions.
Opening up time for creativity and brainstorming. Innovation leaders understand how to give their people the time to think—the difference between “maker time” and “manager time.” As Paul Graham wrote, managers break up their time into 30- to 60-minute chunks, feeling satisfied with tight schedules of meetings throughout the day. For makers, this is disruptive, because it is impossible to generate the time and freedom to be creative. Innovative thinkers need a few consecutive hours to enter “flow” – a mental state in which people are fully immersed in the creative process. Innovation leaders fit meetings around the needs of their creative teams. For instance, Steve Jobs held three-hour meetings on marketing – an unusual amount of time in a CEO’s schedule.
Being self-aware and mindful. The best innovation leaders understand the importance of self-awareness. Without knowing their limitations, they’ll be unable to bring out the strengths of those around them. Honest feedback is often hard to get because many people tell leaders what they want to hear rather than the unvarnished truth. For this reason, many leaders use 360-feedback from their peers and subordinates.
Mindful practices such as daily meditation, prayer, journaling, or jogging also helps leaders to be more creative and open to new ideas. For Iger, this means waking up every morning at 4:30 a.m. to be alone. For Jobs, this meant Zen Buddhist meditation. As I have learned from my personal practice of meditation, mindfulness helps me reflect on myself and my ability to lead others. Many of my strongest ideas have come from meditation.
Innovation leaders don’t create innovations themselves, but they are effective at leading creative people. While many companies claim they are innovative, few successfully develop leaders who understand how to lead creative teams. Many large companies often stifle innovation leaders. Short-term pressures, zero-sum success, and an unhealthy focus on the status quo all prevent innovation leaders from emerging.
Iger calls creativity “the heart and soul of Disney,” but, in truth, innovation leaders are at the core of every creative company. Without their leadership, companies begin to manage for short-term results and eventually decline. To stay ahead of their competitors, companies must have innovation leaders who inspire the creativity of others.