Antonio Viader

Innovation and power: a touchy relationship

Innovation’s very essence is to provoke changes that create value. In contrast, power seeks self-perpetuation through control. The institutionalized power is, thus, generally averse to anything that implies changing or questioning the statu quo and, deep down, it perceives innovation as a threat.

Nonetheless, most organizations’ governing heads pompously declare to be enthusiastic about innovation. Some have gone the extra mile and created an entire industry of so-called innovation directorates, agencies and departments whose real agenda ends up being no other than to prevent uncontrolled change from happening and provide photo opportunities.

This contradiction, which in my experience is applicable to numerous business corporations, academia, administrations and public bodies, is at the heart of many frustrated innovation programs. And it also pretty much explains the increasing feeling of decline in the whole innovation hype.

Consider, for instance, a company that sets up a strategic innovation plan to enhance its product line. The CEO promotes this in all good faith hoping for returns in greater sales, market share, revenue, etc. Of course innovation is the last Holy Grail to provide all this. After all, they have been bombarded with endless success stories of unicorns and startups that got it made through their innovation approaches and management. So they cannot afford to lag behind and take the executive decision of hiring consultants, designate a Chief Innovation Officer in the house and move on to the real daily fight. Find here a very harsh yet funny account by Jeffrey Baumgartner on what goes next:

Or think of an emerging innovation cluster in a poor performing region. Until financial autonomy is reached, its own existence will practically depend on the money made available by the local policy making power. And this means years because it takes time to build trust among the associates and produce a substantial mass of services and projects that fund the cluster’s structure. So in the meantime, what kind of attitude can be expected from the cluster board and management towards the regional government? Good guess, not too hostile, to say the least. It can get worse. The cluster management may learn that it’s easier to stay cozy with power, produce cosmetic events and void reports and get regularly subsidized rather than push real innovation in the ecosystem and risk becoming a nuisance for someone. In time it will grow into another “innovation vector” that is pointing nowhere, while some officer in Brussels is lost in data trying to figure out what went wrong with cluster policy.

So we seem to be at a catch 22 here, where innovation must be nurtured precisely by what will tend to suffocate it sooner or later. There is not a simple and universal way out of this, but I think addressing the following would be a good start:

  • Accountability: players involved in innovation projects, their partners and stakeholders must know what top decision-makers did, what were the costs, the returns and the alternatives. In the case of public entities the entire society has a right to know all this. You may refer to for a pretty straightforward definition of accountability. And, by the way, also a comprehensive list of the many things that go ugly when power is not held accountable.
  • Language: it’s about time we end pseudo-academic debates on what is innovation and how it is shaped. Innovation is pretty recognizable when it happens and certainly has more to do with action than with semantics. Incidentally, it is not R&D, nor creativity nor technology. It never stops amazing me the amount of confusion, pretentious literature and fake consultancy sold at executive levels around this.
  • Results: innovation outcomes are more difficult to measure than others (i.e. financial indicators or marketing metrics) because of technical and cultural reasons. And sometimes the results you get from innovating are just the (extremely valuable) lessons learnt from failing. This often gives a very convenient excuse to incompetent or evil power servants, always ready to bypass monitoring or fill it with noise. It is important not to let them get away with it.
  • Managers: OK, Peter’s principle does happen and we’ve all seen people in the wrong places. But odds for a lousy CFO or CTO to endure are pretty slim because they’d be lethal for the organization in the short run. It’s a different game with innovation, though. I’ve been around innovation managers that would have trouble just defining the concept after years in the job. This has to stop.
  • Leaders: Innovative enterprises need support (not just budget) from a figure that understands, believes and evangelizes the benefits of innovating. It should be crystal clear to everyone involved what exactly the governing direction does (and does not do) to allow for and foster real productive change.

I agree it’s easier said than done. And, in some places, just examining this shortlist would take a revolution (structural beheading included). But I think it’s worth trying a.s.a.p. because I’m deeply convinced that the way this innovation-power balance is managed greatly determines what companies and countries end up producing.

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