Managing People Responsibly for Innovation

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In 2012, I attended Women in Innovation in Seattle. I loved it. I loved speaking and leading a panel. I loved all but one thing: One person on one panel had such an outdated view of business leadership that I couldn't figure out how she got there or which teachers had advised her.

Her sin? She kept referring to “her people” and admonishing us to “get rid of the bad seeds as quickly as possible.” This was her advice to an auditorium filled with young women — very young in some cases — who wanted to know how to innovate. From the standpoint of managing people, she failed on the innovation front.

It is time I write about responsible management and innovation. I’ve been thinking about it for a long time. It seems difficult to explain but also terribly important because some business leaders in their thirties are thinking like the old leaders of the previous era. My worst fear? I saw some of the young entrepreneurs in the audience taking notes.

Last year Inc. magazine asked me for my advice to small businesses and entrepreneurs. My answer was “do not copy the outdated — if they were ever relevant — or popular practices of old line business.” The previous and present eras I speak of are actually two worldviews. I call them Fixed Performance and Dynamic Developmental. They need to be a concern for parents, teachers, leaders in business and government, and anyone who works with any living thing.

Fixed Performance is the view that everything is “the way it always has been and the way it always will be.” Any particular Dick and Jane are smart or dumb and were born that way. There are high and low performers, and they never change. Even though all people can grow and change, they hardly ever do. A sad example of this view at work is the situation in public schools. Children are too often trapped with a teacher and within a district that hold the Fixed Performance view — especially now that federal programs tie teacher pay and performance ratings to student test scores.

The Fixed Performance nonsense is disproved by the experience of anyone who’s really paying attention. It’s also been debunked by recent research on how human brains develop and function.

In contrast, the Dynamic Developmental view sees that people are constantly changing and evolving. No one has an IQ fixed at birth. Any shortfall is a limit in current capability and can be improved by education, reflection and work in a culture that sees everyone as always learning and growing. Managers with the Dynamic Developmental view seize every opportunity to help people discover something new and grow from it. Organizations that work this way are flexible and resilient, never static or struggling to keep up with the competition. They innovate all the time and lead their industries from a belief in people as the number one means of innovation.

Despite the insistence of the CFO who spoke at Women in Innovation 2012, there are no bad seeds. There may be situations where one person can do better than another, but this will almost always reverse when roles and situations change. And of course there are individuals who imagine themselves to be fixed; they only need to undertake a reframing process in order to see themselves as they really are — able to grow and learn. Everyone is growable. In the right culture everyone thrives on developing themselves and others.

The most fundamental managing principle for innovation is to believe in and practice the principle that everyone is growing and learning and is part of the innovation team. Innovation is needed in business cultures and management practices, not just in products and services. That is why I created a work system for managing people that sees development as core and is based on “promises beyond ableness” — promises by people to do something that they know they can’t do now, so that they have to grow in order to succeed. Those who make promises beyond ableness have seen something that really needs to change. It is worth the climb, and they commit to the personal and professional growth to accomplish it.

For more on management based on the Dynamic Developmental view and promises beyond ableness, please check out Chapter Seven in my book, The Responsible Business.

Originally published at on September 26, 2012.

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