Why Failure to EMPOWER Your Teams Will Strangle Your Innovation Culture


One of my favorite questions to ask successful innovators is, “Can you tell me about your best experience as part of an innovation team?”  Almost unanimously, the story goes something like this…

“We were a small, empowered, under-the radar team, and nobody thought our project was going to be successful.  We were scrappy and creative about making prototypes and getting data, and were free to learn and to experiment.  When we emerged with a winning proposition, we shocked everyone… and the program went on to be more successful than other higher-profile and higher-scrutinized innovation programs.” 

One thing that is typically absent from these stories is the role of “management”.  The stories don’t consist of examples like, “Thankfully my boss was willing to get in the trenches with us” or “Those weekly in-depth management reviews were key to our success.”  The stories are absent of statements like, “Whenever we reached a disagreement within the team, we went to our bosses and they solved it for us” or “Thankfully, my manager narrowed the scope early so we didn’t waste time exploring risky, out-of-the box ideas.”  No- if anything, the role of management was “Thankfully, our management trusted us and left us alone so that we could actually get something done!”

When looking at the above story from the innovation team’s perspective, it is easy to nod our heads and say “Hallelujah!  If all programs worked like that we would have a much more successful innovation culture and far better results.”  But, what about from the perspective of management?  For the most part, managers shared these same experiences back when they were working on teams and understand the inherent benefits.  However, it is much harder to “let go” of control and to relinquish the reins when actually in the management seat as the one accountable, but not responsible for the results.  Particularly in times of business crisis, managers often feel more pressure to be seen outwardly as “leaders”… to tighten their grip on the program and to play a more active role in the day-to-day operations of the team.  It is far more difficult as managers to relinquish that control and to trust the teams than it is to micro-manage and “protect” them.

So what then is the role of “management” in driving an innovative culture?  Put simply, management’s role is to make sure that the best team is on the field, that the players are given all the tools they need to succeed, and that the team has a clear goal for which to strive.  From there, the manager should do his/her best to trust the team and then get out of the way.  In some ways, this is counter-intuitive… that this “absence” can be a sign of truly strong leadership as it feels more passive than active.  However, it is critical, particularly in times of crisis, that management relinquish control rather than tighten their grip.  To be clear, this is not an easy task- it takes active discipline, trust, and clearly defined goals and strategies.   It requires managers not to lead the “rebellion” and be a part of the team experience that we all loved as innovators, but rather to enable it and guide it.  Essentially, it takes an attitude of figuring out how best to serve the teams, rather than asking the teams to best serve you.

A friend and colleague compared this conundrum to the character of Lennie from “Of Mice and Men”.  Lennie is developmentally disabled and loves small furry animals so much that he hugs and squeezes them very tightly… unfortunately this pressure, even in an act of love, strangles and kills them.  This too can happen to our programs, to our teams, and thus to our culture if we apply too much pressure and hold on too tightly.  The concept of “Culture” often gets a bad wrap… as being fuzzy and fun rather than functional and fruitful.  To be clear, this focus on culture is not about making the team “happy”, enabling good organizational survey results, or being seen as a popular manager… all of those may be side effects, but they are not the primary driver. No… the true driver is that empowered teams will always deliver better innovation and stronger results. To truly create a successful innovation culture and to lead our teams, we must EMPOWER them.

Key Elements to EMPOWER Innovation

Employ the right people

The only way that this concept of empowerment works is if you have a team that you can trust, that has the skills to do the job, and the willingness to lead and take risks.  Invest heavily in hiring the right people for the right roles… it is better to have no person for a role than the wrong person.

Macro manage, don’t micro-manage

This is not to say to abandon the team and let them go “rogue”.  Get the right team, provide whatever help is needed, align on goals, and then get out of the way.  One of my favorite quotes in this area is from Jim Collins’s “Good to Great”, “The moment you feel the need to tightly manage someone, you’ve made a hiring mistake.  The best people don’t need to be managed- Guided, taught, led- yes, but not tightly managed.”

Protect the team from complexity from above.

One of the most critical and under-rated active roles that you can play as a leader is to shield the team from unnecessary complexity and bureaucracy.  As soon as the team feels responsibility for managing all of the uncertainty around their project, it will taint the innovation against their goal at hand.  Protect the team so that they can focus on delivering Amazing results… once “Amazing” exists, a lot of extraneous complexity becomes simpler.

Ownership delegated to the team below

The team should feel ownership and empowerment to make key decisions and recommendations to drive their programs, and not the need to always go to management for a decision.  It is the leaders role to set the criteria put to push the team to make the recommendations… I often say “It is better to beg forgiveness than to ask permission”.

What, not How

This is one of the simplest, yet most important concepts in empowering teams.  Give the team a big, hairy, audacious goal but don’t prescribe how to get there.  Often, not only will the team find a way to get there on their own, but will come up with a better solution than you could have ever imagined.  “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” – Antoine de St. Exupery

Encourage rebellion, creativity and risk-taking

A team that feels challenged, inspired, and supported to do something out-of-the box, most likely will.  I like the work “rebellion” here… a team with something to prove that has a strong rallying cry is most likely to do something truly new and innovative.  “Never doubt that a small group of concerned citizens can change the world.  Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

Recognize and reward

Put your money where your mouth is.  If you want innovative behaviors from your teams… measure and reward it.  This means finding a way to acknowledge and reward failures, because any truly innovation does not succeed on the first attempt.  While results are clearly important and ultimately are the fruits of a team’s labor, you must reward behaviors along the way to insure that the innovative push and drive persists even through failures.


Check out my book, Agents of Change, available in paperback and eBook additions on Amazon.com


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