Hypothesis: if ever a VP of something is created, perhaps a VP of quality or a VP of sarcasm, it means three things:
- The company is failing at that activity.
- The executives in the company are failing to do their jobs in leading that activity in their divisions.
- The company will continue to fail at that activity until a VP dedicated to that activity is no longer needed.
No great company in history, from Amazon to Google, to Apple, began with an innovation team. That word innovation was almost never used early on, as every employee simply built things to solve problems. Innovation, however you define it, 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 and slowed does its culture become conservative and tied to the status quo. This is when the notion of a VP for Innovation becomes even comprehensible. It’s no surprise that the only companies with VP roles focused on innovation are large and slow ones. The most sensible response to to change a company culture is to put people in true leadership roles, managing the major products or services at the center of a company’s business, that are leaders of change. Only by example do cultures progress. But that would require conviction and tough decisions from a CEO about increasing experimentaton, or re-organizing the complany, both highly political and with some risks. However inventing an executive for innovation out of thin air is easy and far less political: nothing much has to change.
These VP of Innovation roles are usually 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 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 manage R&D groups that develop specific ideas. Instead they’re supposed to encourage others in the company to be more innovative by what, asking nicely? Throwing innovation parties? I don’t really know (but it’s not clear they know either). Their one certain achievement is they let a company claim they are innovative because they have an “executive” with that word in their job title that clients and the press can talk to.
Like my experience with the Microsoft Values Group (see side story below), 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). This doesn’t mean there is no value, only that a healthy creative culture wouldn’t require a VP of Creativity, any more than a VP of Breathing. The VP’s goal then is recovery to health: 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 publicize teams that already have healthy systems of innovation in place, and use show others in the company how to learn from their example.
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 she’s succeeded, as her role in a progressive company, wouldn’t ever be necessary.
[The kind of a culture a leader who wants creativity must create is explored in Chapter 7 of The Myths of Innovation]
[Side story: Before leaving Microsoft in ’03 I gave a talk titled How not to be stupid: a guide to critical thinking. The title was intended to make people laugh, as humor is a large part of thinking well. Afterwards the director of the Microsoft Company Values Team, a team I did not know existed, contacted me. I was mystified that a team existed with the job of promoting the company’s values to the company. It made as much sense as the suburbs telling the city how to be urban. He suggested I change the title to something less negative and more positive, like “How to be Smart”. This literal, but entirely boring, approach defeated the central premise of what I was trying to say. And his attempt to tell me what the values were had the opposite effect: I considered doing the talk again with a more provocative title. The company I’d known welcomed the free expression of challenging ideas. Perhaps this was just writing on the wall as I left the company months later.]