As a United States Air Force Officer and pilot by trade, I know the USAF is all about innovation and has historically been so. Just ponder Orville and Wilbur Wright, Brigadier General Billy Mitchell , General Jimmy Doolittle and General Carl Spaatz to name only a few. These leaders were not simply concerned with technology, they were obsessed with doing things better; they were obsessed with innovation.
Innovation is the application of better solutions that meets new requirements, unarticulated needs, or existing market needs. This is accomplished through more effective products, processes, services, technologies or ideas.
Simply put, innovation is something different or new that “breaks into” a market or into society.
Big organisations and the death of innovation
Innovation in a massive bureaucracy is difficult at best. Innovation in a bureaucracy is akin to a massive ship with a very small rudder; a big ship that is simply too hard to steer. Or maybe it is not the ship or the rudder, perhaps it is something else such as the ecosystem.
Creativity and innovation are not only priorities for the US Air Force, innovation is a strategic goal for corporations all across the globe. Despite this growing obsession, most organisations are not good at it. I can’t count the times I have sat in strategy meetings that gathered smart, enthusiastic teams to generate interesting ideas and debate their merits, yet after the meeting nothing much happened.
I have seen excellent ideas from the most junior leaders. In fact, I have personally grabbed those ideas and tried to make them reality. Many times the ideas do grow and become real only to wither and die when leadership changes. It reminds me of how we treat our houseplants. We purchase them, they bloom, they are beautiful, and then they die. It is not that we do not love the plants, but there is simply a lack of skill in caring and nurturing for these delicate things. What’s lacking is a strong houseplant ecosystem and what’s lacking in most large organisations is an ecosystem for innovation. We want the ideas, but they sprout and die. We don’t have the culture to build, or the skills to sustain innovation.
From command to democratic leaders
We can always learn from unique companies like Apple, and one thing that really resonates is that an organisation needs a strong leader to make things happen. In the context of innovation, a strong leader must be able to gather input from many different pools of thoughts and interests and then set the direction for the organisation. It takes a visionary leader to develop a visionary organization that makes an impact in the world.
A strong leader also understands that the organization itself cannot change the world. Once the direction has been set, a leader must be humble enough to bring in external partners and thus “democratise” innovation to some extent. This is where “old-school” command and control leaders often fail.