The term innovator usually conjures up some image of a wild eyed megalomaniac dodging authority to outmaneuver convention and stick it to the Man – Einstein, Tesla and Jobs. Sure they had to the whole hair thing going while they rode beams of light or chatted up angels or hung out with the Dalai Lama and Joan Baez. But a lot of what makes our world work in better and new ways come from the dull and drab among us who methodically calculate, formulate and animate – and occasionally strangulate – our best ideas. They are engineers and scientists and supply chain managers who do the big dirty work that underlies most of greatest accomplishments. They have the degrees, the experience and bruises to show that they actually know what they are doing.
They put together the complicated compiler codes and packet switches that make the internet a seamless place for entrepreneurs to ply their trade. They conduct the arduous chemical experiments that lead to the molecule that is the effective ingredient in the miracle drug that cures the incurable disease. They develop the sinuous series of technologies that make it possible to move electricity over great distances reducing as much as one third of our energy dependence on oil. They are the offensive linemen of innovation – the big uglies who protect the quarterback. These are the toughest guys on the gridiron.
Whether you are trying to quit drinking or involved in some reengineering program, if you are taking twelve steps or more, you are using control freak innovation processes. Most process is designed to eliminate variation. That’s because the intended outcome is typically quality and efficiency. Sure breakthrough innovation requires radical forms of deviation but what about incremental innovation? That is, what about innovations that are not radically disruptive but radical in their scope and scale? A complicated world takes complicated people with real expertise, data and practices to keep it in sync. Do you want someone who skimmed a copy of Dentistry for Dummies doing your root canal? Innovation isn’t an amateur sport. Control freak innovators seldom suffer the stupid.
There are three situations where you will typically find control-based innovation practices in wide use:
1. When failure is not an option
- An experimental emergency procedure in the operating room
- A crisis situation in the air (Sullenberger to the rescue)
- An unforeseen event on the battle field
2. When there is extreme complexity
- A new jetliner with millions of moving parts
- A new drug with thousands of interactive elements
- A new way of turning brackish water clean in a third world country
3. When there is enormous scale
- Restore power to a city of thirty million people
- Continue to feed one percent of the planet during a drought (Would you like fries with that?)
- Quickly develop a vaccine for millions of people to offset the onslaught of a sudden pandemic
Control freak innovators seek to create two types of outcomes:
- Large Scale Efficiency (It is more virtuous to do with less what can be done with more – Benjamin Franklin)
- Replicable Quality (Measure twice and cut once)
How will you know them? (Pocket protectors or color coded keys are dead giveaways)
- Organized and methodical
- Scientific or technical
- Professional problem solvers
- Objective analysts
- Persistent planners
What is their preferred environment? (One they can control and control you as well)
- Clear roles and responsibilities
- Stable project management
- Logical objectives
- Methodical processes
- Standards and regulations
- Ordered and structured work
What are some of the tools of their trade?
- Business process improvement
- Lean manufacturing
- Pervasive information systems
- Supply chain management
Sure they ask a lot of annoying questions – Do you really have enough data to make this decision? Does your idea really comply with all of our standards? What will you do when your idea fail? OK so they are not the most optimistic among us. Kissing their ring or saluting everyday might seem a bit much but you might just develop some real discipline around your creative efforts and perhaps even a little esprit de corps. It’s a good idea to get to know your not so friendly local control freak innovator. They just might be able to take your screwy idea and turn it into something real and maybe something real big. But not until they feel they have rung all the radical deviance out of you first.