Side story: Before leaving Microsoft in ’03 I did a talk titled How not to be stupid: a guide to critical thinking. Afterwards the director of the Microsoft Company Values Team contacted me. It must have been a recently formed group: I’d never heard of them in my nine years there. Apparently there was an entire team of people dedicated to promoting the company’s values to the company. How absurd. He suggested the talk’s title went against those values. He suggested I change the title to How to think better. This exchange had the opposite effect: I immediately considered doing the talk again with an even more provocative title.The company I’d experienced was open to free expression of ideas. Perhaps this was just writing on the wall since I left the company a few months later.
Hypothesis: if ever a VP of something is created, say a VP of quality or a VP of sarcasm, it means three things:
- The company is failing at that activity.
- The true leaders in the company are failing to lead that activity.
- The company will continue to fail at that activity until that VP is no longer needed.
No innovative company in history, from Amazon to Google, to Apple, began with an innovation team. When new companies start they are by definition creating new things and inventing ways to solve problems. Innovation in these early efforts isn’t prevented by the lack of a VP in charge of it. Finding new ideas happens simply because people need those new ideas to do their jobs. Just as there’s no VP of Breathing or Thinking people do these things just fine, as needed, to get through the day.
Only when a company has matured does its culture become conservative and defend the status quo. Only then is the notion of a VP for Innovation even comprehensible. It’s no surprise that the only companies with VP roles focused on innovation are large and stagnant ones. The most sensible response is to put people in leadership roles that are leaders of change. Only by example do cultures progress. But that would require conviction and tough decisions about firing and hiring executives. However creating a separate role is far easier and more politically palatable.
These VP of Innovation roles are always divorced from actual product responsibilities. Somehow from the side, without actually making any products, they are supposed to change the product making culture. How could this possibly work? Common titles include Chief Innovation officers, and VP of Innovation, but they are not the same kind of executive that has to actually ship anything to the world. They also rarely even manage R&D groups that develop specific ideas. Instead they’re supposed to encourage others in the company to be more innovative by asking nicely? Throwing innovation parties? I don’t really know (but it’s not clear they know either). These are cushy jobs as they are not expected to drive growth or revenue. Their one certain achievement is they let a company claim they are innovative because they have a “executive” with that word in their job title that clients and the press can talk to.
Like my experience with the Microsoft Values Group, it’s flawed to attempt culture change from the side. And I suspect any hard working product team who receives a phone call from a VP of Innovation will be confused as to what their credibility is: “Who are you to tell me what innovation is, or how to do it?” Unless the VP of Innovation has a stellar track record of managing teams that released great products, what credibility can they have? And if they do have that track record, why aren’t they leading by example on an actual product?
The only sensible angle for a VP of innovation to take is to dedicate themselves to eliminating the need for their role (Point #3 above). Any large company started somewhere, and started with innovation and new ideas. The VP’s goal then is recovery: to help teams rediscover the environments and attitudes they once had about new ideas, reintroducing risk taking and creative dialog, and then getting out of their way. Their job is to use their executive rank to promote teams that already have healthy systems of innovation in place, and use show others how to learn from them.
VPs of innovation should have expiration dates. When the company returns to a culture where innovation is natural, or at least comprehensible, the need for a VP of innovation has been satisfied and they should quit and end the role. If innovation doesn’t become a natural part of the environment by the expiration date, then that VP can’t say he’s succeeded, as his role in a truly innovative company, wouldn’t ever be necessary.