Book review: The Innovative Leader by Paul Sloane
From cubicle dweller to innovator
Reviewed by Michael Murray
Published: 05 June 2007
As its subtitle, "How to inspire your team and drive creativity", suggests, this book is a practical volume aimed at helping managers achieve the business world's current Holy Grail of innovation. Its author, Paul Sloane, writes in his introduction: "The need for innovation is well understood. It is now commonplace for leaders to stress the critical importance of creativity and innovation to the future of their organisations".
And while it is widely realised that just doing the same things that have always been done more quickly or more cheaply than before will not lead to sustainable success, it is not so obvious how you break out of this habit. Sloane, an expert on lateral puzzles, creative problem solving and the like, who has also held senior executive positions in information technology companies, looks just the sort of person to assist managers in turning their "cubicle dwellers into innovation warriors" and in replacing "a culture of comfortable incremental progress into one of hungry adventure".
To be fair, the primary audience appears to be managers working in large companies, but many of the issues discussed are of great concern in growing businesses. Indeed, the need to retain or reinvent the entrepreneurial spirit can be especially acute in a business that is trying to manage the transformation from start-up to established enterprise.
Fortunately, Sloane makes it easy for both managers in corporates and owner-managers of growing businesses to learn how to deal with such problems - because the book is simple, accessible and admirably brief. Many of the sections run to little more than a page - just the sort of length that a hassled line manager or entrepreneur can handle.
Typical of the pithy advice on offer is a section entitled "Give Everyone Two Jobs". Sloane writes: "Give all your people two key objectives. Ask them to run their current jobs in the most effective way possible and at the same time to find completely new ways to do the job." In another section - "Trust Your Intuition", he says that MBA graduates are often surprised to learn that businesses run much less on logic and much more on emotion. "It is not cold, intelligent analysis that drives most organisations forward. Emotional energy is often the real engine behind successful people and organisations." Among the famous examples of eminent people using logic and analysis to dismiss innovative ideas are Western Union turning down the telephone because it could not see why people would want to chat to each other, and Decca passing on the Beatles. "Logic and analysis can always find fault with innovative ideas. Use these tools but use them warily", writes Sloane. "If your intuition tells you that you have a great idea, then pursue it a little while longer".
At the same time, though, he encourages the reader to be ruthless when deciding which projects to back or to keep going. In a particularly brief section called "Kill The Losers", he writes that creative ideas generated by many companies are short of resources because other projects are kept going beyond a rational point. "Projects that are interesting and have some potential benefit keep going because of the resources that have already been invested", he says. "It is the 'we can't stop now' syndrome. But the key question is this: is this the best use of these resources right now?"
Another short section urges leaders to spend at least some time "disconnected". This, of course, goes against all current thinking about the time lost through not being able to contact customers, employees and colleagues while on the move and the need to be in touch in case of problems. But it does create the free thinking time that is needed to come up with new ideas. Sloane quotes a senior financial services executive who says he has neither a mobile phone nor a Blackberry ("My motto is, I don't want to be connected - I want to be disconnected".) He insists that the most important part of his day is not on the trading floor but in the gym, where while riding the exercise book or doing a bit of yoga, "all of a sudden some significant light bulbs seem to turn on".
If it sounds as though remaining innovative involves handling all sorts of contradictions, you would be right. Sloane himself recounts in his conclusion: "Typically the innovative leader is both analytical and creative". He or she encourages the testing of new ideas and yet is prepared to kill off those that are not working.
Above all, innovative leaders set the scene for innovation with a clear vision and a supportive culture but do not expect to do it all themselves. Rather, a key role is enabling their teams to be creative. And this is a crucial