The Innovation Midwife

AMA Corporate Learning recently surveyed over 1100 senior managers and executives on the topic of leadership succession planning and discovered only 14% described their organization as properly prepared to confront key leadership loss, and over 80% said they were either “somewhat prepared” or “not at all prepared.” In the case of Steve Jobs, confidence appears reasonably high that Tim Cook is prepared to lead Apple through Jobs’ health break. Yet, 14% nationally reflects a pretty sad confidence level in our leadership pipeline.

I’m reminded of the development culture at U.S. Cellular which dictates the both/and equation when it comes to business results. In their culture a defining metric of goal success is both achieving the business objective AND developing people in the process. The goal is considered incomplete if you ink a deal but the people growth component isn’t there. There is a clear expectation that business drivers include the people development part. Because people aren’t assets, they’re well…people. As Jonas Ridderstrale likes to say, “If you are doing your job as a leader you shouldn’t be needed.” What he means is that if you stock the organization with both high-will ecosystems and high-skill individuals and collaborators, you won’t be needed. The point at which the leader makes their most valuable contribution is to be the midwife of innovation. The leader acting as innovation midwife cannot possibly provide the answer or prescribe the insight, since that approach lacks the originality of the democratic process, and isn’t born from the mind of the contributor. In this capacity, the innovation midwife plays inquisitor – asking the kinds of honest probing questions that yield the birth of ideas.

And there’s another role for the midwife – finding the home and support for the idea. At the same time the innovation midwife is coaxing powerful new ideas into the world, she has to also be finding those sponsors and champions within the organization who are willing to nurture, feed and shelter these ideas so they can become big enough to surprise the world. To quote Ridderstrale again, the TBUS (Time Between Unexpected Surprises) is shrinking every day.