Innovation, Authority and Leadership

A young Maxwell at Trinity College, Cambridge....
A young Maxwell at Trinity College, Cambridge. He is holding one of his colour wheels. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some years ago, I was reading a book about practical innovation management. One of the themes discussed was interesting for me. The author made a comparison between the way that new ideas can be diffused inside a business and in a community of monkeys. In the latter case, only the usages and customs approved by the alpha male or the group of more ancient individuals can be finally adopted by the community, in the former one, although there are a lot of differences, the process can show similar aspects.

First, it is important to notice that different societies have different distribution of power among the individuals. In modern businesses, although there usually is a strong leadership, it usually is far from the concept of dictatorship. But, on the other hand, businesses are structured in order that the leaders can manage them. It is very difficult to get some result without the approval from the senior directorate.

From my years at the university, I remember an old managing concept: “Authority can be delegated, but responsibility cannot”. Authority is understood as a legal permission (written or spoken) from a legal representative to execute a certain task; however, responsibility is related to the individual that must assume the success or the error of that task. This theoretical concept can be far from reality many times when we are talking about innovation because innovation cannot be commanded. Imagine a manager ordering Maxwell’s laws on electromagnetism. In the innovation activity senior management can ask for solutions for a problem but the specific solution does not proceed by a top down scheme, it flows from down to the top.

Some more practical managers prefer another sentence: “Authority must be won”. This is a bad way to express a different concept. In this case, there is confusion between authority and leadership. Authority proceeds from the top, however, leadership is a personal competence.

If we look back to the community of monkeys of my old reading, we will be able to see that there is the same confusion. Businesses are organized as legal societies where some people have authority and can delegate it; however, the community of monkeys depends exclusively on the leadership.

Looking at the innovation process, we will see that innovation managers requires both authority (got from the senior directorate) and leadership (usually got from the power of knowledge and technology) in order to introduce an innovation inside a company.

As I have indicated previously, authority is not required to provide any innovation, however, it is required to assign a budget and the necessary resources to execute the activities of research, development, and diffusion of the technology. Neither budgets nor resources can be got through leadership, although many people of the organization can back the goodness of a certain innovation activity, the assignment of money and workers requires a manager with authority (legal or delegated).

Many processes of modern business can work with authority but without leadership, this is our cultural heritage from the Roman Empire. Romans were probably the most important organizational innovators; they implanted two things that support all our modern business and governments: bureaucracy and the devotion to the state (or enterprise). Bureaucracy is a channel that let to move the authority from a point of the organization to another one without any kind of leadership involved inside the process. Additionally, the devotion to the state avoids the need of having a strong leader to preserve all the individuals of the organization working together towards a certain objective. The cohesion stays although the leader changes. Perhaps, this is the reason why we remember the Roman Empire as civilized against the savage pre-Roman tribes.

But, why did I say previously that the comparison between monkeys and businesses seemed interesting to me? Well, this is a matter of organizational complexity. As all we know, bureaucracy had bad press. As the size of organizations is growing, bureaucracy can make easier the execution of common task but it stops the development of uncommon ones. Innovation managers must align the innovation activity with the structure of power of the organization convincing the “ancients of the community” about the benefits of the introduction of new technology, because, in a different case it could not be diffused to the whole organization as in a community of monkeys, on the other hand, leadership always is needed to cope with bureaucracy: where bureaucracy limits the authority of the innovation manager, its leadership can provide support for the activity of the innovators and generators of ideas.

As a corollary, although an innovation manager must know well how the internal bureaucracy of the organization works, I would suggest that you should not put as an innovation manager to someone who gets his incomes through the development of bureaucracy. Probably he should be a stopper instead of an enabler of innovation.


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