Managing Innovative Businesses

Engineers want to build things and scientists want to understand things.  It takes both to successfully innovate. The ability to dream a concept and build it into reality requires both a drive to understand the science and challenges, and the desire to build this understanding into reality.

Managing this kind of effort is not easy.  Both creativity and curiosity are desired and rewarded, even when they may seem in conflict with established business paradigms. Sometimes you find that you are managing a very focused effort, single minded in its desire to achieve a goal. Other times you are managing chaos. Both are essential to innovation in some balanced dance of interplay.

When you set a high importance for creativity into a business, it has its own operational form, fit and function.  It is different from the form, fit and function found in service delivery and production operations. It is different still from the form, fit and function found in a business’s financial, HR, and sales & marketing operations. This is why there can be conflict, and a lack of trust, between these fundamental pieces of an operating business.

The secret to success, I have found, is to build a shared vision with folks in leadership that cherish the goals, culture and the people who work in the environment. You wind up managing the interface between the groups, and between technology and people.  This means managing processes that are designed to harness the energy of all these diverse pierces to achieve the business’s purpose. That purpose being to achieve financial success and to create positive change in its ambient environment (internal and external customers and stakeholders).

These processes are also designed to keep folks focused on the short term and long term objectives of the business and their contribution as a team member.  When these process begin to break down, individuals begin to think more about themselves, and promoting themselves, than they do the team or its objectives. This leads to sub-optimization. Sub-optimization is just another way to describe self-promotion.  This can happen at the personal level and at the department level.  Either way it is destructive.

One characteristic that defines high performance teams is a movement away from command and control, to a more cellular approach to managing. Command and control being more focused on people, and cellular being more focused on processes.  Cells are self-contained and self-managed, but depend on other cells for survival (business success in this case). Control is maintained by keeping everyone’s eye on the ball (the vision) instead to of trying to control individual behaviors. In an innovative environment you want constructive debate and diversity of opinion (some allowance for individual behavior). Sounds a little like herding cats, and maybe it is.  Maybe it is also why innovative businesses often fail. Failure being an offspring of innovation. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it, but they aren’t.