Leader? Or follower?

Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower. Steve Jobs.

‘If you always do what you’ve always done, then you’ll always get what you’ve always got.’ One of a handful of frequently-repeated business sayings that just happens to be true, and one I never tire of repeating.

But what if you do a lot more of what you’ve always done? Then you’ll probably get … seriously ill. Throwing an ever-increasing number of hours at your business is not the answer – and it never will be.

The world is changing more and more quickly. However many hours you put in, if you’re dependent on what you’ve always done in the past then one morning you’re going to wake up and find someone else is doing it better/cheaper/faster. Or all three.

That’s why innovation is becoming more and more important in business. Ignoring it, thinking that your particular corner of the global economy will never change, is to court disaster.

I was reading an article in Forbes magazine last week – their annual review of the most innovative companies on the planet. The key point that came across was that it’s the leaders of these companies that inspire and perpetuate a culture of innovation. Take Jeff Bezos at Amazon – number three on the list. According to Forbes, Bezos asks all job candidates a simple question: ‘Tell me something that you’ve invented.’

The logic behind Bezos’ thinking is inescapable – he’s not looking for someone who’s come up with a replacement for the wheel; it could be ‘a new way to load the dishwasher.’ But what he wants are people who are open to new ideas: people who – to use the famous quote from Robert Kennedy – “see things as they could be and ask, ‘Why not?’”

Hands up – has anyone ever asked a question like that when they’ve been interviewing? I certainly haven’t.

The Forbes article makes another important point: that if the leader of a company doesn’t “get” change, or doesn’t see the need for innovation, then the company as a whole has no chance of innovating. Innovation flows down from the top – or it doesn’t flow at all. When Steve Jobs was at Apple from 1980-1985 the company’s ‘innovation premium’ (the measure Forbes uses) was 37%. Without Jobs the premium was below zero. When he came back, it jumped to more than 50%.

So far, so corporate. I’ve been talking about big companies – but more than ever these days, small companies need to innovate as well. They need to be agile, swift to adapt, swift to embrace new ideas – and not afraid to think the previously unthinkable.

And you know what? I think the future is bright. Because I look round The Alternative Board tables and the two phrases I hear more than any others are ‘why?’ and ‘why not?’ Why have you always done it that way? Why not try something different? Why shouldn’t it work? Who says it can’t?

The Forbes article quotes Fabrizio Freda, who’s the CEO of Estee Lauder. What does he identify as his key strength? “Playing the outsider.” Fostering innovation by constantly challenging the status quo.

That’s what I love about TAB – the constant challenge, the constant quest to improve, to accept that it doesn’t always have to be the way it’s always been. I suspect I’m lucky, in that people who think like this are naturally drawn to TAB – to the challenge and stimulus provided by the other people round the table.

Let me finish for this week with another quotation. This is from Harvey Firestone, founder of the tyre company:

Capital isn’t so important in business. Experience isn’t so important. You can get both these things. What is important is ideas. If you have ideas, you have the main asset you need, and there isn’t any limit to what you can do with your business and your life.


One comment

  1. Steven Partridge · September 14, 2012

    An excellent blog, Ed. I’ve always thought that trying ‘new’ ideas is vital – often they’re from either different walks of life or different types of business and can be adapted. It’s very rare that anything is lost by having a go.

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