Mar 1 2009

Be An Innovator

When I was on vacation last week, I read John Bogle’s book Enough: True Measures of Money, Business, and Life.  In addition to be a superb book, it had a bunch of tasty little nuggets in it.  One of my favorites was “the three i’s – innovator, imitator, and idiot” that was attributed to Warren Buffett.

I thought of this nugget this morning when reading Fred Wilson’s post When Government Funds BusinessIn it, he concludes “When government funds business, it messes everything up.”  One of his examples is the delicious irony that Citi – which just got more government money – is running traditional print ads in the NY Times.

Nyt citi

Fred’s wife Joanne’s reaction to this is "We are paying for that ad. In a newspaper that less and less people read every day. No wonder they are in trouble".  Yup – I’d put that behavior in the idiot column.

However, I’m aware of some things going on at Citi that I’d put in the innovator column.  They aren’t public so I don’t think I can talk about them, but I’m amazed at how forward looking, innovative, potentially transformational, and relatively inexpensive these activities are.  They are the kind of fundamental investments that you’d hope major companies are making to stay relevant in the next decade.

While most people aren’t innovators, that’s ok.  Many American’s understand the importance of them and – when the innovators take leadership roles – they motivate the non-innovators to follow them.  In a twist on Buffett’s line, I’d suggest that if you apply it to leadership, you can segment leaders into three categories: innovators, imitators, and idiots.

When I think about my experiences with large companies, I see Buffett’s quip all over the place.  Their leaders include innovators, imitators, and idiots throughout the organization.  Same with government.  The challenge is the innovators – especially when they are in a culture that is playing defense or simply trying to survive – often get drowned out, discouraged, or marginalized.

I believe that one of the key foundations that America has been built on is the innovator.  At all levels of society, throughout history, the innovator has led, created change, and inspired greatness throughout our history.  People love to follow the innovator.  While the innovator is willing to take risks that might result in failure, not taking the risks often results in even greater failure.

My appeal to all leaders in big companies – and in government – is to innovate.  Play offense. If you don’t know how to do this, look around for the innovators in your organization and team up with them.  Challenge the imitators to step up their game.  And don’t tolerate the idiots in any way, shape, or form.