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Why Just About Every Single Head of Innovation — Including Me — Should Be Fired

As seen on Forbes

Hint: No matter how aggressive we are being, we aren’t being aggressive enough.

I wasn’t being hyperbolic with that headline.

Most innovation officers are brought in to shake things up, and just about all of them are not aggressive enough.

Let me give you a representative example, and then I’ll talk about what needs to be done.

Two years ago, I made a critical phone call to a friend who had recently been appointed Chief Innovation Officer (CINO) at a large hospital group on the west coast. He had been hired to change things quickly at the hospital group, which was having problems keeping up with all the changes in health care.

The reason I called was because from my vantage point, he was being too timid. He seemed to be playing politics and kicking the can. I told him that in his position, playing it safe and trying to please everyone was a HUGE mistake. Rather than making his mark by challenging convention and pushing an agenda about an innovative — albeit scary — future, he appeared to be kissing up to the board and taking on projects that would create no real wake — and no real impact.

Your Fired

I was frustrated with him because I knew he was capable of so much more. I argued that his time to make a difference was getting shorter, and he needed to be courageous, to challenge the status quo, to push for organizational learning and risk-taking. With his future in mind, I literally told him he was being perceived as weak and to step it up.

Despite my admonitions, within a year he was fired. He lasted less than three years in a job that was made for his unique skills. Everyone could see it coming but him. Check that — he probably saw it coming too.

He missed his chance. Don’t let this happen to you.

This Is Hard

Leading an innovation effort takes stones. Your job is to run in the face of convention. Since you are standing for things your company does not yet know how to do, in the beginning you are quite literally standing on the side of incompetence. You must quickly get your team to use research and proven innovation processes to identify glaring, unmet consumer needs that your organization can serve — itches that your company can scratch. You must overcome fear, inertia and politics.

You must work the soil while you work on the seeds because the culture is as important as the big ideas. You must learn how to empower the fearful CFO and middle managers who are trained to mitigate risks, not take them. You must learn how to inspire with possibility and empower with process. You must do the job that the organization desperately needs you to do.

The Chief Innovation Officer has a difficult but noble job: creating a brighter future. True Chief Innovation Officers know that courage and foresight are the only real way to stay in front of the entrepreneurs who can and will put your company out of business. You understand that unless you advocate aggressively for what’s next, your company is doomed to be “Napstered” by entrepreneurs who have no business being in your business; startups that are simply trying to solve problems your organization can’t see, or worse, refuse to address.

Yes, of course, there are some companies that are committed to innovation that are constantly evolving and more comfortable across the board when it comes to trying new things. Those companies don’t need Mavericks running their innovation projects. They need Orchestrators.

The Orchestrator is a patient, skillful change agent who has typically been with the company for many years. She is the one who gets things done. The Orchestrator is not constrained by functional silos. She is the person who has often been called to take on the most complex and important tasks. She is a loyalist and cares deeply about the company, her friends, the industry and her legacy. Many trust her; many are likely to follow her lead. She works best in an environment where the company is truly ready for — albeit frightened of —change. Unfortunately, these kinds of companies are in the minority.

Most companies need Mavericks to tangibly help them break away from the corporate inertia that’s inhibiting their innovation results. But most Mavericks are not aggressive enough and should be fired.

My partner Raphael Louis Vitón, who holds a deep commitment to helping leaders responsible for guiding organizations through this kind of transition, recently sent me the following stream of consciousness about why either of us should be fired.

So for the courageous few who dare to challenge convention, here, in Raff’s words, are a few reasons why you should be fired (or not):

“Why I should be fired.

“If I’m not getting fired (or at least getting threatened to be fired), I might not be as good of an innovation leader as I want to be…. I might be too comfortable — I might be avoiding conflict — I might be biting my tongue — I might be afraid to ask myself or others the challenging questions — I might be holding back — I might be withholding valuable opinions — I might be lacking valuable opinions — I might be withholding valuable dissent — I might not be trying hard enough — I might not be thinking hard enough — I might not be learning enough — I might be scared of pushing too hard — I might be afraid of the unknown — I might care too much about how others will react or what others might think — I might not care enough.

“I might not be challenging the status quo — I might be benefiting from the status quo — I might not be taking enough business or career chances — I might be dutifully playing it safe — I might be afraid to make mistakes/fail — I might be afraid to take the blame — I might be waiting for others to respond first — I might be giving consent and power away with my silence — I might be trapped along with the rest of the silent neutral majority, waiting…thinking that my delay isn’t costing me, my family, my team, or my community.

“My job as an innovation leader is to role model a belief in the impossible and to live the impossible even if it makes me uncomfortable. I need to be living the impossible out loud in front of the team and bringing as many of them along with me as I possibly can.

“If I’m not doing that effectively, I should be fired.

“If I am doing that affectively, I should be fired.”

For people with the DNA to truly be a Maverick CINO or an Orchestrator CINO, this will resonate with you. If it doesn’t, you may be on your way to a new job — just like my friend on the west coast.

If you become the Chief Innovation Officer, you have 16 months to make your mark. If you aren’t courageous, you will be fired.

When you learn to ski, instructors will tell you that if you aren’t falling, you aren’t pushing hard enough. Similarly, as a CINO, if your job isn’t at risk, perhaps you aren’t taking enough risks.

Being real about challenges you can and can’t handle is a good measure of leadership.

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