Innovation Snobbery is Not Serving Organizations

By Michelle Malay Carter on December 2, 2007 

InnovationHarvard Business Online has posed the question, what is management?s role in innovation?? I ask, what isn’t management’s role in innovation?

Executive management?s role is to ensure that it institutionalizes the?expectation that managers will lead the continuous?improvement of their teams AND that time is allotted?for them to lead?improvement initiatives.? Innovation should be an expectation of all workers and an accountability of all managers.

Based upon my experience, managers are not systematically held accountable for continuous improvement of their teams.? Further, most believe innovativeness and creativity are characteristics of a select few, and that it need only occur at the highest levels of the organization.? Innovation snobbery is not serving us for a variety of reasons.

Innovation Must Occur at All Levels
Indeed, innovation looks different at varying levels of the organization, but continuous improvement must happen at all levels.? When a warehouse employee discovers a different way of stacking raw materials to load more materials per pallet and the result is more material delivered each trip, you?ve got innovation at level 1 – increased productivity.

All Work is Creative
All work is creative and involves judgment and discretion.? This is what humans do that computers and robots cannot. Successful TQM initiatives took advantage of the fact that all humans are creative.? Ignorance of work levels led to trouble when kaizen meetings were filled with people from multiple levels of the organization, as their focus was different and rightfully so.? Multiple-level meetings left some attendees?feeling pulled into the weeds by minutia and others annoyed by pie-in-the-sky conceptual, strategic topics.? Both need tending to, but during separate meetings led by accountable managers at the appropriate level.

Adaptive Innovation – For Cost Reduction and Increased Productivity
Levels 1 ? 3 of an organization are concerned with current operations and their innovation focus should be value adding adaptations to current processes.? Some models call this adaptive innovation.

Strategic Innovation ? For Sustainability and Competitive Advantage
Levels 4+ should be concerned with strategic innovation ? new markets, new products, new business models.

Outsourcing Innovation is a Mistake
When innovation snobbery results in our thinking that innovation must be separated from the mission-delivering part of the organization and it is ?outsourced? to an elite group, organizations must bear the cost of integrating the innovation back into the line organization, and this integration is often met with resistance.? Further, it robs the mission-delivering part of the organization from the ?psychological kick? of the opportunity to be creative, leading to disengagement.

Innovation?s Link to Accountability
Current performance management models seek to hold employees accountable for their output rather than their overall effectiveness. ?This is ludicrous because ?reward for output? does not account for unforeseen circumstances.? Additionally, employees do not supply their own resources nor choose their assignments, their managers do.? Therefore, accountability for personal output alone is cruel, and frequently fuels corruption.

Rather, employees should be accountable for giving their best, and managers should be accountable for the output of their teams.? Further, managers should be accountable for leading their team in continuous improvement efforts.? At review time, managers should make judgments (not calculations) about their direct reports? effectiveness, i.e. did they use appropriate judgment and discretion based on the circumstances.

We have got to reduce accountability conflicts of interest.? As long as employees are held accountable for their output, why would they take a risk on innovation which could lead to reduced output?? If instead, they were held accountable for using appropriate judgment and discretion, they could be rewarded for taking?a chance on something, even if it “failed”.? Nearly all current performance management models are stacked against innovation.? It?s safer to continue the status quo.?

The fact that many organizations offer bonuses telegraphs the idea that organizations believe most employees are ?holding back?, and bonuses will coax employees into giving their best.? If bonuses fueled innovation, when bonuses were threatened at the end of the year due to budget shortfalls, we should expect a burst of innovation.??Rather, we?see open jobs left unfilled, and travel, dining, and holiday parties cut from the budget.

In Summary, To Foster Innovation Organizations Must:

I’m OK.? You’re OK.? Let’s fix the system.

Your innovative thoughts on the subject?

Filed Under Accountability, Corporate Values, Employee Engagement, Executive Leadership, Managerial Leadership, Requisite Organization


4 Responses to “Innovation Snobbery is Not Serving Organizations”

  1. Dhruva Trivedy on December 3rd, 2007 9:54 pm

    I couldn’t agree on anything less. The sum and substance of innovation is ‘people involvement’, and that involvement would come about only through accountabilities defined…and since we are discussing ‘innovation’ these accountabilities would need to be redefined from time to time. In order to ‘fix’ these accountabilities the primary tools would be empathy and interpersonal abilities, which every leader, irrespective of levels should acquire. This comes through perceptiveness.
    Perceptiveness on the part of every leader at micro or even macro levels plays a major role in sensing the need and then strategise on the accountabilities. Perceptiveness is an offspring of alertness and social awareness, as we all know. Managements should focus on a culture to bring out these two abilities in every employee to awaken them towards innovation.
    Where I would tend to disagree with you from my experience is ‘freeing’ the employees from output accountabilities and hold the manager alone responsible for output. What I would advocate and perhaps reinforce output accountabilities with innovation accountabilities to attain an advantage for the organisation.

  2. Jim Stroup on December 4th, 2007 5:06 am


    I agree completely that much academic attention to this subject is, in effect, self-absorbed snobbery that simply acts in an accessory role to the widespread tendency to inflate the role of the individual and downplay that of the system.

    It’s a bit ironic, perhaps, that academia would find itself developing theory out of whole cloth to support various notions of the great leader, such as his or her putatively heroically creative and central role in organizational innovation, rather than examining organizational dynamics from a broader, more general and objective perspective, but there it is.

    This essay is an excellent presentation of the issue for organizations – my vote for best line goes to: “Insource innovation, i.e. expect it from the mission-delivering organization, at all levels.” Perhaps the most potent phrase is “the mission-delivering organization.”

    Outstanding – thanks!

  3. Michelle Malay Carter on December 4th, 2007 9:47 am


    I don’t feel we are too far off from one another. I agree that “The sum and substance of innovation is ?people involvement.” I also agree the interpersonal maturity on the part of a leader is a wonderful thing.

    Accountabilities (tasks, projects) related to strategic goals will be job-specific and they need be changed and updated as circumstances change. When I refer to accountabilities I am talking about the generic, system wide accountabilties for all employees, managers and managers-once-removed.

    I am proposing system-wide standard worldview that is consistent, fair and aimed at enducing trust rather than the paranoia which I believe current systems stir up.

    Systems drive behavior. I’m not saying that managers should ignore employee output when assessing effectiveness, but it should only be one input. Looking at numbers only fuels corruption. For example, people will hide mistakes, pass through poor quality products in order to meet their numbers. This behavior makes perfect sense if the systems is set up only to look at numbers. Somewhere we decided looking only at numbers is objective and thus fair. If I’m being judged for effectiveness, it behooves me to bring attention to mistakes or quality deficits, not hide them.

    How can employees be accountable for their output when they do not choose their assignments, they do not supply their own resources, and they cannot control all circumstances? Asking employees to be accountable for things out of their control is cruel and a cruel system will drive dysfunctional behavior.

    Thanks for your input. Feel free to push back.



  4. Michelle Malay Carter on December 4th, 2007 9:50 am


    Thanks for the comment and support. I was pleasantly surprised my innovative idea of penning the word “insourcing” too. My partner gave me the phrase mission-delivering part of the organization.