Book review: Innovation leaders

Innovation Leaders: How Senior Executives Stimulate, Steer and Sustain Innovation

Jean-Philippe Deschamps

Jossey-Bass, $37.99

There's a quote at the top of Chicago's John Hancock Centre that we should bring back to Hamilton and put up on every billboard.

The quote, from the late Nobel Prize-winning author Saul Bellow, headlines the history of Chicago exhibit in the Hancock Observatory.

"Chicago builds itself up, knocks itself down, scrapes away the rubble and starts over."

Taking in Chicago's skyline from 94 stories up, you can't argue with the results.

So how about Hamilton? Are we ready to knock ourselves down, scrape away the rubble and start over? And do we have a choice?

The Conference Board of Canada just put out a report that warns Hamilton is headed for hard times. Our city is poised to have the slowest growing economy of 13 large Canadian census metropolitan areas and our manufacturing output is expected to fall 7.3 per cent. The Conference Board says Hamilton's real gross domestic product is forecast this year to increase by just 0.3 per cent and that growth rate could be even more tepid in the wake of recent layoffs and plant closings.

That's bad news for anyone who's looking for work or worried about job security.

Now would be a good time for Hamiltonians to start failing and doing it as fast and frequently as we possibly can. It's not about throwing in the towel. Failure leads to innovation and innovation leads to solutions that'll create new jobs, new opportunities and a new start for Hamilton.

Listen to this trio of leading innovators, who caution against risk aversion and a fear of failure.

"Tolerate mistakes," says Daniel Borel, co-founder and former chairman of the board of Logitech. "Accept failure, otherwise you'll kill innovation. There is a fine line between success and failure.

Sometimes, it's just luck. But the good news is that you learn more from failures than successes. In our business, you would rather be right six times out of 10 than two times out of two to make sure you do not miss out on opportunities." The key is to learn from failure and make fewer mistakes than others going forward.

"Most of the great breakthroughs come through failure, through an experiment that does not go as you thought it would," says Bill George, former CEO and board chair of Medtronics. "The experiments that go as you think they would, all they do is confirm previous knowledge. The experiment that doesn't go that way leads you to say, 'Oh, what can I learn from that?' and then you play that to making it better."

And then there's IDEO, America's leading design studio and innovation culture evangelists. The company's motto? Fail often to succeed early.

A tolerance for risk-taking and failure is just one of six innovation imperatives, according to author Jean-Philippe Deschamps, an innovation management practitioner with 40 years of international experience.

Those innovation imperatives include:

  • An insatiable urge to try new things.

  • An obsession with redefining and adding more value.

  • The ability to manage risks.

  • Speed in spotting opportunities and in project execution.

  • A shift in focus and mindset from optimizing business to creating business.

You also need the right folks leading the charge. Innovation has two parts, says Deschamps. There's a creative front end, fuelled by imagination and a disciplined back end focused on implementation.

Deschamps says few innovators are great at both dreaming and doing.

"These processes are very different in nature and require very different and complementary talents, attitudes and styles of leadership. Indeed, some observers suggest that the front end of innovation calls for 'question-asking' leaders, while the back end requires 'problem-solving' ones."

Front end innovation requires an extreme openness to new ideas, acceptance of out-of-the-box thinking, a predisposition to networking and a willingness to experiment and learn.

On the other hand, back end innovation needs rigour in analysis, an implementation focus, operational knowledge, an ability to coordinate multiple functions, speed in decision-making and pragmatism in managing risk.

The trick is to put together a team of innovators who can pull off seamless handoffs between imagination and implementation.

And then there's the need to create the right conditions and a can-do climate for generating and diffusing bottom-up and top-down innovation.

Grassroots innovation is idea-fuelled and entrepreneur driven. Top-down innovation is vision-fuelled and ambition driven.

In truly innovative companies, innovation is moving both up and down, with a whole lot of small bets coming up from the frontlines and a few big bets being championed by visionary leaders who rally the troops.

So if we want to replace lost jobs with new and better jobs, make Hamilton the best place to raise a child, create Canada's most sustainable community and turn Steeltown into the capital city of Innovation Nation, we need to start rolling the dice, failing fast and furious and batting six for 10.

Published by

Jay Robb

I've reviewed more than 500 business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations since 1993.

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