The Other Side of Innovation

This Harvard Business Review book describes how to run an "innovation initiative" within the context of a larger organization. In other words, how do you manage something that isn't a product group, which aptly describes how do you manage anything in a research lab. This book was highly recommended by my mentor Bernd Mathiske at Adobe, stating the book is spot on. Since Bernd is such a great manager, I had to read the book.

This idea has also been floating around in the startup realm. If you've been reading anything about YCombinator, Paul Graham consistently says they look more for the right founders than the right idea. Ideas are cheap and change, finding good teams who can execute is hard. YCombinator seems to have even taken it to a further extreme, hiring founders without an idea.

The book examines execution in the context of large organizations. It's an upper management book, clearly delineating the roles between those in the "innovation initiative", and those in the "performance engine" (e.g. product groups). The main thesis is that initiatives should be focused clearly on learning, learning fast and learning cheap. The mantra "fail early and fail fast" from the startup world applies here. Therefore, the management of an innovation initiative is different than a product group. For example, how you determine the performance of your employees? It's different - focus on how much they learned. How do you manage tech transfers? It's a delicate balance of politics. How do you staff your teams? Because the skills required are very different than the ones required in a product team. This book examines those questions.

The fundamental idea that execution is more important than the idea is one I believe in. However, the how of managing a research project have always been swimming in my head, but it was never concise. The book puts it in more concise terms, but I still feel like most of it wasn't very concrete. It was more philosophical / idealogical / abstract. Maybe that's how upper management is or I'm just too used to the compiler saying "error". I also wonder if I'm just too junior of an employee to really absorb and clearly comprehend all the implications of the book. Either way, it is an interesting way of thinking about management and will probably influence my thinking as I learn more about management in the years to come.