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Becoming A Successful Executive Doesn’t Prepare You To Innovate

2018 June 24
by Greg Satell

Becoming a successful executive is a fairly linear path. You start at the bottom and learn to solve basic problems in your field or industry. As you gain experience and improve your skills you are given more responsibility, begin to manage teams and work diligently to set up the practices and processes to help your team succeed.

The best executives make those around them better, by fostering a positive work environment, minimizing drama and providing strategy and direction that will enable the team meet its objectives. That’s how you deliver consistent results and continue to rise up through the ranks to the top of your profession.

At some point, however, you need to do more than just plan and execute strategy, you have to innovate. Every business model is disrupted eventually. Changes in technology, competitive landscape and customer needs make that inevitable and, unfortunately, executive experience doesn’t equip your for it. Here’s how you can make the shift from operations to innovation.

Learn How To Be The Dumbest Guy In The Room

Good executives are often the smartest guys in the room. Through years of experience solving tough problems, they learn to be masters of their craft and are able to mentor those around them. A great operational manager is a great coach, guiding others around them to achieve more than they thought they could.

Unfortunately, innovation isn’t about what you know, but what you don’t. It requires you to explore, push boundaries and venture into uncharted areas in which there often are no true experts. You’re basically flying blind, which can be incredibly uncomfortable, especially to those who have had a strong track record of success in a structured environment.

That’s why the first step to making the shift from operations to innovation is to learn how to become the dumbest guy in the room instead of the smartest. Admit to yourself that you don’t know what you need to succeed and begin to explore. Actively seek out those who know and understand things that you don’t.

Being the smartest guy in the room helps you operate smoothly, but being the dumbest guy in the room helps you learn. The best way to start is by seeking out new rooms to spend time in.

Create A Bias For Action

Operations thrive on predictability. People need to know what to expect and what’s expected of them so that things can run smoothly. Every great operation needs to coordinate activities between a diverse set of stakeholders, including team members, partners and customers. That level of interoperability doesn’t just happen by itself.

Over the years, a variety of methods, such as Total Quality Management (TQM) and Six Sigma have arisen that use rigorous statistical methods to optimize for established metrics. The idea is to hone processes continuously in order to elevate them to paragons of efficiency.

When you seek to innovate, however, established metrics are often of little use, because you are trying to do something new and change the basis of competition. Again, you are venturing into the unknown, doing things you and your organization have not developed the knowledge and skills to do well. Instead of seeking excellence, you need to dare to be crap.

The key to making this work is not to abandon all sense of restraint and accountability, but to manage risk by reducing scale. In an operational setting you always want to look for the largest addressable market you can find, but when you are trying to do something truly new, you need to find a hair on fire use case — a customer who needs a problem solved so badly that they are willing to work through the inevitable glitches and snafus with you.

Solving The Monkey First

Every good operational project has a roadmap, whether that is an ordinary budget, a project plan or a defined strategy. The early stages of a plan are usually the easiest. You want to get everybody on board, build momentum and then begin to tackle tougher problems. When you are trying to do something new and different, however, you often want to do exactly the opposite.

Every significant innovation involves something that’s never been done before, so you can’t be sure how long it will take or even if the core objectives can be achieved at all. So it’s best to get started working on the toughest problems early, because until you resolve those unknowns, the whole project is unworkable.

At Google’s X division, the company’s “moonshot factory,” the mantra is #MonkeyFirst. The idea is that if you want to get a monkey to recite Shakespeare on a pedestal, you’d better start by training the monkey, not building the pedestal, because training the monkey is the hard part. Anyone can build a pedestal.

Operational executives like to build pedestals so that they can show early progress against a timeline. Unfortunately, when you are striking out into the unknown, building a pedestal gets you nowhere. Unless you can actually train the monkey, working on the pedestal is wasted effort. You have to learn how to train monkeys.

Moving From Metrics To Mission

Good operational executives sweat the numbers. They work within existing frameworks and hone operations to improve performance against established metrics. Yet when you are trying to do something truly new, established metrics often tell you little. The goal isn’t to play the game better, but to change it entirely.

In fact, established businesses often get disrupted precisely because they are focusing on outdated metrics. For example, when digital cameras first came out, they performed poorly by traditional standards of quality. They did, however, perform much better in terms of convenience and, as the quality of the pictures improved, replaced the earlier technology.

In a similar vein, while traditional brokerages focused on service, Charles Schwab offered minimal service at a far lower price. At first, it didn’t seem like a threat to incumbents, but as technology improved, it was able to improve service and keep the low flat fees. The model ended up transforming the industry.

So it’s important to not get blinded by metrics and focus on your mission. True innovation never happens in a straight line or proceeds at a measured pace. That’s why there is a basic tradeoff between innovation and optimization and very few people can do both. The best executives, however, learn how to bridge that gap.

– Greg


An earlier version of this article first appeared in

Image: Pixabay

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