I’ve read a lot of books about innovation. I’ve read some of the most popular books on the topic, and also some hot takes from individuals leading the most innovative companies today. There’s one thing that sticks out when it comes down to innovation, and that’s how far an idea actually goes. Simply put, some ideas are just not ready because the people seeing them are not ready to embrace them.
Consider this. You’re in your early to mid career and deciding on whether you should I-shape your knowledge by specializing in your craft with a MS/MA or T-shape your knowledge with an MBA. One pigeonholes you into a certain type of work, but the other allows you to take the knowledge virtually anywhere.
Neither of these are bad per-say for killing innovation, it’s rather about where you end up later on the idea ladder. For I-shape knowledge, you’re likely an individual contributor or team lead & do less overall decision making. For T-shape knowledge, you’re likely a people manager & do more overall decision making. If you took time & realized that these roles should be flipped for decision-making, that’s the point of this article. It should be that way, but it’s not.
In my opinion, most MBAs kill innovation. This is because they have the unique opportunity to make larger decisions on behalf of others and are not the best individuals to make the decisions in the first place. They are put into positions on the org-chart to do this for businesses to maintain KPIs, OKRs, and ensure investors that the business value is still being provided to their customers & their benjamins are safe & sound. They choose to optimize for profit rather than innovation.
Each layer up the org ladder is a level of an innovation killer. The higher up you go, the more breadth of knowledge & the more likely your idea will be killed. The lower you are however, the more depth of knowledge & the more likely your idea will be embraced.
Outside of going up & down the ladder, you also have echo chambers. These echo chambers may sound familiar to you. “We’re doing what we’ve always done that works.” If you come across this type of language or other variants, this should be a prompt to challenge the status quo. What you’re doing now that works today may not be what will work in the future. What your definition of “works” can be largely subjective to the best interests of your customers & people.
In other words:
Curiosity > Complacency
You may even see process be refined to “force innovation” such as Six Sigma, Kaizen, or LEAN. At it’s core, it has merit; to become better everyday. In it’s implementation is nothing different than squeezing every last ounce from the lemon to hit a metric. When it’s used to explore problems & solutions to become better everyday, that’s curiosity. However when it’s forced to meet a metric, it’s complacency.
If you want to empower innovation, you have to empower your people.
People need space to fail. To discover new techniques in different industries. To have enough time to be bored enough to daydream & problem solve. To not always be distracted with meetings & bureaucracy. We’re failing to innovate by failing our people.
The more autonomous they are, the more competent & innovative they become. It doesn’t matter if you’re the CEO of a company or another engineer in a feature team, you have the unique opportunity to make space & empower others to innovate.
At least my two cents speaking as an ex-MBA student.