Innovation Book Club: The New Science of Radical Innovation

Sunnie Giles isn’t interested in small-time innovation. For the management and leadership consultant, innovation is big and bold. It’s radical. It happens at the level of Google, Netflix, Facebook, and other systems-disrupting organizations. And it can be achieved systematically, as she outlines in her new book, The New Science of Radical Innovation: The Six Competencies Leaders Need to Win in a Complex World.

“Radical innovation is sustaining. It’s long-term, not just a fad,” Giles said in an interview with HSMAI. “The way to make a sustaining trend, not just a fad, is to create an ecosystem where incremental providers, incremental innovators, or complementary products and services can coexist and cohabitate together and benefit each other. Gone are the days that you just maximize your short-term profits, because if you do that and you don’t invest in creating the ecosystem, you will not survive.”

Being open to radical innovation requires what Giles calls “Quantum Leadership.” It’s dense and heady, encompassing insights from neuroscience, complex adaptive systems theory, and, yes, quantum mechanics, which, Giles writes in The New Science of Radical Innovation, “provides the mathematical foundation for understanding the complex, interdependent, unpredictable behaviors or organizations and humans in them.” We asked her to explain how.

In your book, you directly connect innovation and leadership. Why?

I’ve studied innovation theories and leadership theories for a long time. In recent years, what is coming out of the academia is the theory that innovation is a serendipitous result of employees trying different things, which I totally ascribe to. The next natural question is, then what is the role of leadership if innovation is serendipitous? That’s when I started digging, and I found that there’s a severe lack of cohesive frameworks in leadership theories to tackle this issue about innovation.

How did you come up with the six specific competencies?

There are actually three competencies, but each one has a prerequisite, which is why you’d count six. The three competencies are safety, connection, and learning. For you as a leader, to provide safety for the people around you, you have to do self-management. If you don’t manage yourself, people around you aren’t going to feel safe. That’s why self-management is a prerequisite for safety.

Once you have the safety needs met, then you meet the connection needs of the people. People need to belong, they need to feel connected. It follows the three layers of the brain. The very primitive part of the brain is the reptilian brain, which is all about safety and survival. The more evolved part of the brain is the limbic system, which is all about connection and attachment. Once that need gets met, then you have the cortex brain, which is all about learning, and what companies want the most from their people is that learning part of the brain. But you can’t provide the connection needs of your team until you respect them as individuals first and unleash their individual unique talents, thoughts, and contributions. You need to make sure that your team is fully individuated first.

What does individuation, or differentiation, mean? That means diversity of thought. When you have diversity of thought, then you can put people together and have meaningful connection. Then, based on the safety and connection foundations, people can go out and try different things and learn without any fear of punishment, or fear of any negative repercussions. Then the radical innovation happens as a serendipitous outcome.

This is very counterintuitive, but what innovation is, is an accumulated result of people’s errors — people learning from their trials and errors. The errors from each trial get accumulated over time, it gets bigger and bigger, and it explodes through the critical inflection point, and that’s what becomes innovation. You have to encourage people to fail, and fail stiff and fail quickly, so that you can capture the learnings from each iteration. When you accumulate them and disseminate learnings fast and effectively throughout your organization, that’s going to explode into radical innovation.

You write that your book is really about “demystifying radical innovation.” What is it that people tend to find so mystifying about radical innovation?

People set apart a department of innovation. They put somebody in charge of the department of innovation, they give them a budget and then then give them people, and they say, “Go make innovation happen.” That’s not how it happens. Innovation cannot be choreographed or structured. It just happens spontaneously and serendipitously.

“To produce innovation, you need to have perfect execution and make sure that whatever you put out is actually perfect!” No, it doesn’t work like that. It’s more important to create an environment of learning than perfect execution.

How does Quantum Leadership tie into radical innovation?

The word comes from quantum mechanics, obviously, and there are quantum-mechanics principles that we can utilize to maximize the effectiveness of leadership. People think it’s too scientific, it’s too mechanical, but it’s not mechanical quantum mechanics, it’s the opposite of mechanical. There is a principle of uncertainty, there’s a principle of interdependence. Those are some of the things that come from quantum-mechanics theory. When you take advantage of and maximize and harness those principles, then you can be a lot more effective as a leader.

Do you have a favorite example of radical innovation in action?

Red Hat [open-source software company] is definitely one of them. It’s a company that is living and breathing the principles that I talk about in my book. It’s about self-organization, letting people organize themselves instead of micromanaging, and giving them dramatic leeway and decision-making capabilities. Netflix is another one. These companies were upstarts 10 years ago, but they are transforming the respective industries that they’re in.

How do they stay radical 10 years later?

You provide and create a process and culture that can promote and make these principles self-sustaining. The principle of self-management is that you need to look at yourself and make sure that you are managing your stress correctly and you’re filtering your emotions so that you don’t just explode in anger. Those are really important principles, and you need to set the expectation as a company that you will never ever be a jerk: No matter how brilliant you are, you are not going to survive in this company if you are a jerk.

Insight Type: Articles