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January 2, 2013

Just how Sustainable is your culture of Innovation?

Posted by Simon Towers (View Profile | View All Posts) at 5:27 AM


Passion. It's a word we throw around quite frequently in the business world. I often hear friends say they are passionate about their job or about their career. 
But, I think, we often confuse passion with ambition. Think about the people you've come across over the course of your life who were solely focused on getting that next promotion. According to Bill George, a professor at Harvard Business School, that kind of attitude displays ambition but not necessarily passion. Prof. George, who teaches leadership at Harvard and had a distinguished career leading Medtronic, recently spoke to the Infosys Executive Leadership Summit. "If your passion is to get a promotion, you'll never innovate," he said to the crowd. "If your passion is to get a promotion, you'll probably make a lot of money, but you are not likely be the innovator. If you innovate you deserve to make a lot of money and you will, but if you start out with the goal of getting promoted, you will not be the innovator."
Prof. George should know. He's written countless case studies for Harvard Business School about how the best companies use innovation to become industry leaders. And how, by their very culture of innovation, they branch out and create new industries. Don't try acquiring your way to innovation, advises Prof. George. Indeed, some of the biggest companies attempt to buy start-ups in the hope that they can add their cutting-edge inventions to their current stable of products. But without a culture of what he calls sustainable innovation within a company, no amount of acquisitions can transform it.

One way to protect and sustain that culture of innovation is to put a human face on it, said Prof. George. Even the toughest of directors and shareholders are likely to back your culture of innovation if you show them how it has helped not only the company but actual people as well. When he was CEO of Medtronic, he relentlessly shadowed researchers and observed doctors performing surgery in order to see how his company's products could help people. Such behavior might seem extraordinary for a CEO. But Prof. George said that by being in the field he was able to develop a passion for what the company and its employees did every day. And he sought to pass that passion on to the entire organization. One day he watched someone die on an operating room table. "Sometimes one person, one patient, one customer, can change the whole game," he said. Ask anyone currently employed at Medtronic what the best day of the year is, and he'll most likely say it's when the company brings in four or five people who have amazing stories to tell about how innovations have helped them. Prof. George said it's not uncommon for some 4,000 employees to crowd into the atrium auditorium, stairwells, and hallways at company headquarters just to catch a glimpse of the speakers. 
His favorite story involved the young man who talked about a spinal cord problem that required painful surgery every year of his life. By the time he was 16, he said he simply couldn't go through with one more surgery. "His body got very stiff and rigid and he took an hour to get out of bed, his mother had to dress him - embarrassing for a teenage kid - and he had to go to a special needs school," said Prof. George. "He had no life, no hope." But then the young man received a special Medtronic drug pump. He pulled back his coat for everyone in the company auditorium to see. The pump allowed drugs to go directly into his spinal cord, which took away 90 percent of the symptoms he had faced since birth. He was able to do the things he'd never dreamed of doing: going to a mainstream school, then on to college, and even getting out of his wheelchair and walking.   "It was that day I really got what the company was all about," Prof. George said.   
The kicker here is that the company was ready to kill that particular drug pump. Medtronic had never made any money on it. But after that young man's story, the entire company became passionate about taking another look at it. Medtronic eventually had a multi-hundred million-dollar business on its hands. Prof. George challenged the audience to think about what products or ideas their own companies might have that could make a positive difference. 

As leaders, start thinking about your people and their innovations with passion, he said, because it all starts with that. 

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