The Biggest Roadblock to Innovation

Author: Christopher Durso       

Luke Williams_headshotLuke Williams calls it “the cult-of-personality problem in innovation.” It’s the idea that only a Steve Jobs–type genius can create something truly innovative. But Williams doesn’t agree. Executive director of the W.R. Berkley Innovation Lab at NYU’s Stern School of Business and author of Disrupt: Think the Unthinkable to Spark Transformation in Your Business, he thinks innovation and disruption are for everyone, and he’ll explain how when he appears on the Main Stage at PCMA Education Conference 2017 in New York City in June. Look for an interview with him in next month’s issue of Convene. In the meantime, here are his thoughts on that cult of personality:

When it comes to leading innovation or being innovative, we believe, “Well, I’ve never invented something. I can’t do that.” Or, “I don’t have the personality to lead innovation. I call this the cult-of-personality problem in innovation. The media fawns over celebrity CEOs — Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk — and regularly reminds us that they are or should be role models for innovation. Glossy magazines and business professors celebrate the world changers. I believe this is why the Walter Isaacson biography of Steve Jobs is still a bestseller, because people have been told that innovation is important. They have to manage or lead it, so they’re trying to look for the playbook on how to do that.

The problem with all these magazine articles and the [Jobs] biography is that they’re personality-trait driven. As a result, you’ve got a lot of people at the moment treating people like jerks because they believe, “This is how we’re told to bring innovation.” This brings up a very important point. When organizations get praised for their disruptive thinking, it’s often assumed that this charismatic CEO is doing it and can motivate everyone else down the rank and file. That might be true in some cases, but in my work, it’s definitely not the rule.

The idea that you have to be a risk taker, or even think of an unusual idea, or you have to be an extrovert to inspire people to step out of their comfort zones — it’s flat-out wrong. The problem with the cult-of-personality approach to innovation is, despite their charisma, too many leaders make absolutely no practical attempt to teach disruptive thinking as a leadership capability. This just has to change, I think. These passive narratives of domain-specific leaders of innovation being provocative, it’s not the same as active confidence in capabilities that work across functions in industry. Talking about innovation and actually leading it are very different things.

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