Creating Predictable Innovation Success


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I had the opportunity to interview Les McKeown, author of “Predictable Success” recently.

Here is text of the interview:

1. Why is innovation so important for organizations?

Two reasons: First, it’s clearly a competitive advantage. Innovative organizations are far more likely to flourish in the long term than competitors who are merely emulating others.

Second, innovation is what stops an organization from becoming arthritic and entering into decline. Without innovation, there’s no change, and without change, the organization is doomed becoming bureaucratic and sliding into a decline stage that I call The Big Rut. Once that happens, it’s very hard for the organization to recover and get back to the growth stage I call Predictable Success.

2. When it comes to achieving predictable success, what is the biggest challenge that you see organizations facing?

Balancing one the one hand entrepreneurial zeal, creativity and risk-taking; and on the other, the systems and processes that are needed to ensure consistency and which deliver the efficiencies that produce sustainable profitability.

Most organizations over- or under-cook their use of systems and processes. Too little, and the customer experience becomes inconsistent (as do profits), too much, and the organization becomes rigid and inflexible – it will then inevitably get bypassed by external change and begin the decline into The Big Rut.

3. Why do many companies fall out of predictable success?

Organizations fall out of Predictable Success when senior management fails to appreciate the numbing effect of the systems and processes they have allowed to be introduced.

When it’s younger, every growing organization passes through a stage I call ‘Whitewater’, when they need – for the first time, often – to introduce (and adhere to) systems and processes in order to tame the complexities that their newly ‘big’ company is facing. Once senior management sees the efficiencies and consistencies that systems and processes then bring, they understandably want more of what appears to be a good thing.

So, even more systems and processes are introduced, and before you know it, the organization slides forward into the stage I call Treadmill – the first decline stage, brought on by over-dependence on systems and processes and the associated and inevitable decline in innovation and risk-taking. If that slide isn’t caught and reversed, the organization will then fall into The Big Rut – and is then on its way to eventual irrelevancy and ultimate oblivion.

4. Just how important to an organization’s success are ownership and self-accountability?

They’re absolutely vital. It’s impossible to have an company be successful in the long run without high levels of ownership and self-accountability throughout all parts of the organization (organizations can be successful for short periods without much ownership and self-accountability – if for example they come up with a game-changing new product – but it isn’t sustainable in the long term).

The problem I see is that many organizations try to instill ownership and self-accountability by teaching it. I wince when I see training programs and workshops on ownership and self-accountability. You can’t teach it. It’s an inherent trait – it’s either there or it isn’t.

What you can do is to hire people who already possess an attitude of ownership and self-accountability, then ensure the conditions are there throughout the organization for it to flourish.

I show in the book that there’s a direct connection between ten factors (including for example, the company’s org chart, the way in which managers relate on a peer level, alignment around the organization’s vision and values, its hiring practices and how it mentors or coaches people), that when correctly aligned automatically guarantees that ownership and self-accountability will flourish. But try to start there – try to ‘force’ ownership and self-accountability into existence by teaching it – and you’re doomed to failure.

5. What is the most important culture change for organizations to make in order to support innovation?

Too often I see organizations try to emulate innovation by sending a group of people off to some sort of a skunk works environment, or a short-term event like a kaizen, and telling them to ‘be innovative and think outside the box’. Unsurprisingly, this doesn’t work.

Encouraging and sustaining innovation in the long term means having a systemic, enterprise-wide culture that prioritizes hiring the right people, training them to think creatively, then providing an environment where they can experiment, take controlled risks and fail (within agreed boundaries) without negative consequence. That cannot be achieved by having any number of highly artificial, short-term innovation ‘events’.

6. What are some of the biggest barriers to innovation that you’ve seen in organizations?

Above all else, a ‘bring me no bad news’ culture. Once management begins to exercise a reality distortion field (which is essentially what ‘bring me no bad news’ is – it forces people to lie and manipulate reality, in order that their manager gets what he or she is asking for – no bad news), once that happens, innovation’s days are numbered.

Innovating means being able to make mistakes, taking chances, experimenting, doubling back, trying again – and none of that can co-exist with ‘bring me no bad news’. So when I see a C-level executive communicate in that way, either overtly or by implication, I know the organization will be in trouble soon.

7. What skills do you believe that managers need to acquire to succeed in an innovation-led organization?

I look for a strong challenge function. Managers who don’t ask hard questions, either because they’re timid or because they have little intellectual curiosity tend not to do innovative things or encourage innovation in others.

8. If you were to change one thing about our educational system to better prepare students to contribute in the innovation workforce of tomorrow, what would it be?

This is such a huge area, I don’t believe I can do it justice in a short answer, but essentially, I believe the entire basis of western education needs to be moved from rote learning to learning by discovery. I’d love to see kids given a one-week project, for example, and for them to spend the entire week exploring all aspects of that project holistically – instead of being herded from one boring one-hour class to another boring one-hour class by bells…

There’s so much that needs to be – and must be – done to change our education system that it overwhelms me at times when I think about it.

You’ll find our book review of Les McKeown’s book “Predictable Success” here.


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