Innovation Need Not Start at the Top

Some people are passionate about innovation, while others shy away from new ideas. In its recent publication the McKinsey Quarterly observes that: In some organizations managers who are most frequently sought out for advice on new concepts often have the most negative attitudes towards innovation—partly because they have difficulty balancing new ideas with current priorities.

One way around these bottlenecks is to intentionally create networks of managers charged with encouraging new ideas. This kind of decentralized team can identify promising new concepts and prioritize them so that they receive the attention they deserve.

So the question “Are Middle managers innovation bottlenecks?” is surely an interesting one. On the one hand, they are correct in recognizing that managers are burdened with current priorities, meaning, in general, day to day operations. Putting out fires. Planning for this quarter. Hiring. All of that. And that’s what their performance is measured on. They have to follow those rules to be promoted.

But it’s not that simple. And here’s where we disagree. We find, time after time, that middle managers can be very frustrated, and in fact, initiate new business creation activities in their companies. Some of them are concerned about the company’s future health. Others are brimming with ideas they’d like to see come to fruition. Still others are bored with their jobs, or have people working for them who are bored and frustrated.

Half, (fifty percent, six of the twelve) of the breakthrough innovation management systems we’ve studied in some detail over the past 4 years were initiated by middle managers. So the next time you hear that ‘it has to start at the top…’ don’t believe it. It’s true that the middle managers who initiated these innovation systems had to ultimately convince senior leadership of their worth. It’s also true that they were not all successful in doing so. But some were. And that’s what counts.

McKinsey suggests that the way to get around the bottleneck of middle managers is to identify those who are interested in innovation and connect them in a decentralized network fashion. Their job, McKinsey suggests, is to generate ideas and prioritize them. That’s a great start, but doesn’t it leave a lot of work on the table? For example, where’s the connection of those priorities to the strategic intent of the company? Also, who’s supposed to develop the ideas? Nurture them? Experiment in the marketplace? Access or develop the technology? Once again, we see a lack of attention to that critical incubation competency.


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