Closing the Great Innovation Gap

Photograph by Rainer Behrens/Gallery Stock

Sit at dinner with global CEOs and sooner or later the discussion will turn to innovation, and with it, the moment of truth. It’s a time when humbug innovators (masters at deceptive conversation) often sound like real innovators, touting innovation as core to their company’s success. But innovative CEOs, leading profitable, innovative companies, are not humbugs.

Truth be told, CEOs who lead the most innovative companies in the world spend twice as much time—about four months a year—doing innovation work themselves as CEOs at the helm of far less innovative companies do. No wonder Steve Jobs guided Apple to phenomenal success during his second time around—after he had devoted at least 15 years living the innovative life: asking provocative questions, making observations, talking to diverse people, experimenting to find the right product and, ultimately, connecting the unconnected (resulting in iMac, iTunes, iPod, iPhone, iPad). Other innovative CEOs do exactly the same.

The bottom line is leaders (from the top of an organization to the bottom) who put in personal legwork to find and forge innovative new ideas are far more likely to lead organizations or teams that do the same. Our data (collected with Jeff Dyer and Clayton Christensen) based on more than 6,000 survey assessments of C-suite leaders to frontline supervisors, show you can’t have one without the other. There are no shortcuts to building an innovation premium, a belief by others—especially investors—that a company, team, or individual is doing things today that will deliver new products, services, and businesses tomorrow.

This is being put to the test right now at one of the world’s most innovative companies, Apple, where Tim Cook has made it clear he’s far less involved on the creative side of the company than Steve Jobs was. Time will tell whether chief designer Jony Ive and Apple’s innovation engine can run on all cylinders without a highly innovative CEO at the helm. One year out from any CEO transition is far too short of a span to tell. Industry disruptions usually demand at least a five-year gestation period, so in 2016 we will have a better understanding about whether Apple, without Jobs, can defy the downward pull of global stock markets.

When it comes to innovation, are you a humbug leader or an authentic one? If you suspect more humbug in your answer than you might prefer, there is a way out.

First, stop talking—start doing. Pick a problem that matters to you. Start asking better questions about it. Make surprising observations, network with others for new ideas, and rapidly prototype options to make it work. You’ll be surprised at how the most vexing problems can get solved by individual innovative action. Ultimately, your company’s future rests upon leaders’ persistent personal actions that bridge the great innovation gap.

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