It’s not always necessary to search far and wide. Sometimes the key is closer at hand, right inside the company. Some people understand that part of their professional activity involves being engaged in their firm’s future. We could call them corporate innovators. These profiles are far more widespread than we might imagine. They should be rewarded for their well-balanced and consistent behavior. They don’t belong to a club of nostalgic conservatives ranting about the good old days, nor are they cynical rebels who rail against their organization’s immobility. They build on its accomplishments and they’re reliable and predictable. They deliver what they committed to, but at the same time they are children of their own time, constantly reflecting on what should be changed or improved in their organizations. They know how to juggle several work horizons simultaneously in order to craft innovation. Above all, they know how to plan and manage the transitions needed to implement them. Without brutality, without heroism, without romance, but simply going with the flow.
Steve Jobs, Elon Musk or nothing?
Only visionary bosses can truly innovate? Is it the boss who takes care of everything regarding the company’s future ? This is a little simplistic. Renault did not become the number one car manufacturer in the world solely through Carlos Ghosn’s talent. The group’s 120,000 employees also played their part. Ask the innovators who nurtured the Dacia project for years in India, China, Brazil and Russia for their take on this. Corporate innovators are voluntary agents of business organizations’ collective intelligence. As employees, they “promote themselves as general managers of a new idea that means a great deal to them” (from “Intrapreneuring: Why You Don’t Have to Leave the Corporation to Become an Entrepreneur” by Gifford Pinchot). They want to influence their environment and are determined to be part of their company’s history, considering it possible and sometimes even necessary to “disrupt” things from the inside.
Linda Hill, professor at Harvard Business School, suggests that large business organizations harbor a sort of collective genius of innovators. In a study described in her book “Collective Genius: The art and practice of leading innovation” (Harvard Business Review Press), she examines the conditions that foster this situation. She explains that highly innovative business leaders see their role not so much as being responsible for the company’s future, but rather as creating the context that enables innovation to take place. In other words, that of a humble, discreet leader who protects his or her internal innovators, like Pixar CEO, Ed Catmull, extensively studied in her book.
Rejecting the established order
A corporate innovator means first and foremost being willing to reject the status quo or the established order. For this to happen, the firm’s traditional doctrine, stemming from the industrial society, where you plan, obey and control, must be cast aside to make way for the new digital society. Fostering a corporate innovator attitude involves opening up the project by providing a real mandate and making it possible to innovate from within.
How can we encourage these so-called corporate innovators? The recipe is well known: empower, remove inhibitions, train, protect and, finally, liberate processes that can subsequently flow freely. This requires a profound cultural shift, changing an environment where internal innovators were often described as “pirates or gamblers”, or as “knights or saints” (“Intrapreneurs and market-based managers : Pirates and gamblers or knights and saints ?” by H. J Reitz).
The heroic model of rebel commandos working under the radar in secret is gone. No more need for corporate hackers, knights or saints… Nor for internal start-up incubators, parallel projects and guru bosses to develop innovation in large business organizations. The main challenge for today’s business community is to learn to hire, select, stimulate, protect and recognize its ordinary corporate innovators, and to get them to work in networks. Period.
Pierre is Director of EDHEC Executive Education international programmes.
Serge is Director of innovation at Somfy and former director of innovation at Décathlon.
Pierre and Serge are co-directors of the innovation and permanent transformation chair at EDHEC Business School.