Why do good people who desire to learn and innovate consistently fail to produce what they intend? If most people come to work truly desiring to make a difference, to gain, as Peter Drucker puts it, a “return on their citizenship,” then the failure to innovate is puzzling. It can’t be blamed on not having the right people.
Peter Drucker has elegantly presented the three ingredients of the discipline of innovation: focus on mission, define significant results, and do rigorous assessment. But if it sounds so simple, why is it so difficult to innovate? It must have more to do with why Peter Drucker’s three core practices are challenging.
Practice #1: Know your purpose
We can start by inquiring into what we mean by mission. You can’t focus on what you cannot define, and there is some fuzzy thinking about mission, vision, and values. Most organizations have mission statements, purpose statements, visions, and values. But few of us can say our mission statement has transformed the enterprise. There is understandable cynicism around lofty ideals that don’t match organizational realities.
The first obstacle to understanding mission is a problem of language. Many leaders use mission and vision interchangeably, or think that the words—and the differences—matter little. But words do matter.
The dictionary, an essential leadership tool, contains multiple definitions of the word mission; the most appropriate being “purpose, reason for being.”Vision, by contrast, is “a picture or image of the future we seek to create,” and values articulate how we intend to live as we pursue our mission. Paradoxically, if an organization’s mission is truly motivating, it is never really achieved. Mission provides an orientation, not a checklist of accomplishments. It defines a direction, not a destination.
This also gives some clue as to why being mission-based is so difficult. It gets to the core of power and authority. It is profoundly radical. It says, in essence, those in positions of authority are not the source of authority. It says rather, that the source of legitimate power in the organization is its guiding ideas. The cornerstone of a truly democratic system of governance is the belief that power ultimately flows from ideas, not people. To be truly mission-based is to be democratic in this way, to make the mission more important than the boss.
While this might appeal to our ideals, living this way is challenging. We are all closet authoritarians. For most of us it is the only system of management we have ever known. To be mission-based and values-guided is to hold up lofty standards against which every person’s behavior can be judged. Moreover, mission is inherently abstract. It is easier to make decisions based on “the numbers,” habit, and unexamined emotions. To be mission-based requires everyone to think continuously. But it can be done, and, when done, it can work.
Practice #2: Define results
This requirement is easier in some ways. Managers by nature are pragmatic; ultimately they are concerned about results and must concentrate on how, not just why. The danger is that short-term goals can obscure larger purposes. Here again, language matters. Vision—an image of the future we seek to create—is synonymous with intended results. As such, vision is a practical tool, not an abstract concept. While mission is foundational, it is also insufficient because, by its nature, it is extraordinarily difficult to assess how we are doing by looking only at the mission. For this we need to stick our necks out and articulate “an image of the future we seek to create.”
Results-oriented leaders must have both a mission and a vision. Results mean little without purpose: a mission instills both the passion and the patience for the long journey. While vision inspires passion, many failed ventures are characterized by passion without patience.
Now, these ideas might sound good, but they are radical statements in today’s society. The return-on-investment orientation—the view that people go to work primarily for material gain—is the bedrock of our beliefs about people in contemporary society. Thus, the real discipline of innovation not only threatens established power relations, it also runs counter to our cultural norms.
Consider, for example, the saying “People do what they are rewarded for.” What management is about in many people’s minds is creating the right set of incentives and rewards so people will do what the enterprise needs them to do. Just ask people if they think the senior management really believes that people come to work every day, as Deming said, “seeking joy in work.” That’s intrinsic motivation, and it is assumed to be in scarce supply in today’s management. Joy in work comes from being true to your purpose. It is the source of the passion, patience, and perseverance we need to thrive as individuals and as organizations. However, people cannot define results that relate to their deeper passions unless leaders cultivate an environment in which those passions can be safely articulated.
Practice #3: Assess results
We must continually gauge how we can best use our scarce resources. Assessment has two components: measurement and interpretation. The second and more difficult component—interpretation—requires understanding, participation, and physical presence. Statistical measures of an activity may be disappointing, but if you’re actually involved, you may see that people are engaged, learning, and on the brink of a breakthrough. Incomplete or premature assessment destroys learning. After assessing results, we must abandon what doesn’t work to clear the decks for trying something new. Yet it is difficult for organizations to abandon what isn’t working, or to remove a person who lacks credibility from a position.
The first step in practicing abandonment is openness—creating a culture in which, at a critical moment, somebody can tell a boss, “This is not working,” without fear of reprisal.
The litmus test for measuring openness is simple: How fast does bad news travel upward? Good news travels upward faster than the speed of light. But failure is denied before the word can be spoken: “Whose failure? What failure? That wasn’t a failure, we just didn’t have enough funding.” Innovation is a process of failure—a continual learning process. You must experiment, assess, reflect on mission, identify results, and experiment more. Yet we are trained to avoid failure, and thus real learning.
Most people learn that to succeed, they must find correct answers and cover up incorrect ones. This undermines the inquiry-skills essential to real innovation and leadership.
From Habit to Discipline
Taken together, mission, vision, and assessment create an ecology, a set of relationships forming the bedrock of real leadership. These tools allow people, regardless of job title, to help shape their future. Drucker is right that innovation is a “discipline,” a word having its root in the Latin disciplina, an old form of “to learn.” Many people have talent, but real learning requires discipline, the process through which we draw out our potential through commitment, practice, passion, patience, and perseverance.
Mastering the discipline of innovation will require working together, learning from one another’s efforts. To do something new, people invariably experience periods of profound discomfort. Confronting the threat and uncertainty such change brings is best done together, not in isolation.
We are all addicted to maintaining control, to avoiding failure, to doing things the way we have always done. We can’t help it. And we need one another to break the habit.