Innovation is, by its nature, full of risk and unknowns. That's what makes it so interesting, so challenging and so utterly uncomfortable for many business leaders. While most every other aspect of effective business management requires and rewards discipline and steady execution against plans, innovation is different.
In spite of the risks, management books and corporate folklore are filled with stories of visionary leaders who ignored the data, the customer and sometimes common sense to pursue new ideas with which they held a clear passion and a clear vision of the future possibilities. The story of Hal Sperlich and the birth of the original Chrysler mini-van is a great example of vision overcoming focus groups and management review boards. When Ford turned Sperlich down to pursue this illogical vehicle (which researched poorly with consumers), he took it to Lee Iacocca at Chrysler and the rest is history (More on the history of the minivan).
Malcolm Gladwell in his most recent book, Blink, made this case in slightly different terms: that we need to trust our instincts and our sub-conscious minds to make good decisions that we could never realistically evaluate in a conscious rational way -- the human mind has an uncanny knack for simplifying the complex and peeling away the irrelevant to reveal the core.
Yet for all of the heroic stories of visionary leadership, there are just as many and more frightening stories of vision gone awry. A classic example: The Premier cigarette was launched in 1988 by RJR after committing over $1 billion in its development and launch. It was pulled from the market in less than a year (click here for more of the history of Premier). In hindsight, it was certainly a bad idea -- one that could have and should have been killed long before its market introduction.
All of this leads me to ask the question: When does 'visionary' become 'tunnel vision' in championing innovation? I find it to be an extremely relevant and important question today as innovation rises once again to the number one spot on corporate agendas. How can business leaders avoid the 'false negatives' of killing potential big ideas too early, while avoiding spending good money after bad in pursuing potentially viable ideas and innovations.
I'll share some of my thoughts (and others') in the next post, on how to know when you've gone from 'visionary' to 'tunnel vision'.