Disruptive Innovation vs. the Hedgehog

As a leader you have a plan for your organization. Your vision is clear and your plan well developed. The last thing you want is distraction. After all, great thinkers like Jim Collins (“Good to Great”) have made it clear that a hedgehog-like focus is critical to success.

So some yayhoo out of left field with a harebrained idea is nothing but a distracting sinkhole for money, time and talent — unless, of course, he is not. What if his idea is brilliant and born of a view that is hard to develop from within your culture? What if her harebrained idea is the next big thing for you and your organization, just disguised as an unrealistic and impractical idea?

Leaders are often pulled between two poles that have equally compelling value propositions. In this case, Scylla and Charybdis take the form of:

  • “Innovation and new ideas are the lifeblood of a growing organization.”


  • “A hedgehog-like focus on our core flywheel capacities is critical to success.”

Navigating this territory requires an ability to get comfortable with ambiguity, a key capacity in successful leaders. And ability to think in terms of “both/and” rather than “either/or” is a huge asset, especially if a leader can get comfortable with it. One strategy for managing this and other polarities can be found in what we are learning about how the human brain functions.

There is a lot of attention these days on the part of our brain set aside to handle routines. In theory, that function frees up the gray matter in our more recently evolved brain centers to engage with new ideas and processes that do not fit into a predetermined category.

Most of the CEOs I know who successfully manage a balance between productive focus and disruptive innovation put this structure to use in their organizational model. Be certain that the COO is firmly focused on the current core business and ensure that new ideas have a clear place to get a hearing. Not all new ideas are good ones, and sometimes even the diamonds show up looking like lumps of coal. But an organization that has no capacity to entertain new ideas, even for old challenges, limits its own competitive sustainability.

Some still fund a Tom Peter-style “skunkworks” team, but for middle-tier and smaller organizations, it may be the CEO or a marketing executive who has to be the place for new ideas to get their hearing. Why divide the tasks this way? Two reasons surface as common arguments.

It is the COO’s job to maintain and improve on the daily operations of an organization. A great COO is a leader of people and a great manager of the primary business processes that drive efficiency. Innovation focused on improved efficiency and performance? Absolutely key for a COO. Systems and process updates that improve efficiency? You bet! Most organizations depend on the COO to stay heads down on improved productivity and efficiency.

It is the CEO or senior marketing executive who more often is future focused, looking for the next big opportunity, market or technology — the one outside the core business. Perhaps even the one that can become the next core business. Naturally, these lines blur based on the organization and the leaders, but one thing I have noticed in my experience coaching in the executive suite: A core competency for the CEO is a high tolerance for ambiguity, the ability to work with more than one possibility, more than one strategy.

Our brains must operate as a whole to be powerful, focused and imaginative. But they do so by dividing the functions between various parts of the brain best suited for the task — yet operating as a team. Not a bad model for efficient functioning at the executive team level. But even the brain needs a center to direct traffic, to evoke the needed skills of the function most appropriate in the moment. R&D and marketing may live in the future, while operations and logistics must live in the past. The best CEOs move fluidly between the two.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, August 18, 2014.