Innovators Break Rules

Last week I was with an R&D; group who were lamenting the lack of entrepreneurial spirit in their ranks. This week I am at the African Leadership Academy with students from across the Continent discussing entrepreneurship and the hero’s journey. One student cited the text: “Successful entrepreneurs make bold leaps that break contact with the familiar and leave behind a clutter of obsolete products and processes.” (“The Entrepreneur as Hero”, Candace Allen). She continued by describing her uncle who broke family and tribal norms when he went to China for an engineering education. I am inspired by the readiness of these students to make such bold leaps as they shared who their heroes are.

In today’s corporate environment heroes are more difficult to identify. Why? Failure to break the rules? This is a difficult but essential inquiry as we try to sort out the “rule-breakers” who have violated our trust and squandered millions of dollars from those who are innovators, if not heroes. Daniel Vasella, CEO of Novartis, commented recently (McKinsey Quarterly Conversations with Global Leaders) that he doubts that “tons of new controls will improve the situation. …Innovation is always, ‘How do I circumvent certain rules to make more and better returns?’ “ He comments further on the “trust gap” that must be closed and the integrity that is required to do things differently.

Leaders deviate from the norms. They go where no one has gone before. Innovators do break rules. But they must do so with integrity in an environment where the vision of what could be and the shared values are more powerful than the instinct to comply with rules and processes. Perhaps the lack of entrepreneurial spirit correlates directly with the lack of understanding of the hero’s journey inside the corporate world. The students here in Joburg certainly have prompted me to be thinking about it more this week!