Revolutionary, insurgent, heretic. The political, military, and religious metaphors suggest that zealotry has been with us since the birth of formal organizations. Indeed, the history of innovation in all kinds of organizations, from nations to businesses, is replete with stories of individuals and small groups of people who, through extreme focus, resolve, and passion, have had an impact out of all proportion to their numbers.
In his Adventures of a Bystander, Peter Drucker says of such individuals (and modestly doesn't include himself): "The single-minded ones, the monomaniacs, are the only true achievers. The rest, the ones like me, may have more fun; but they fritter themselves away…. Whenever anything is being accomplished, it is being done, I have learned, by a monomaniac with a mission."
In 18th-century England, the entrepreneurs who drove the first industrial revolution emerged mainly from small groups of religious dissenters such as the Quakers, Congregationalists, and Unitarians, groups that comprised less than 5 percent of the total population. However, it is estimated that, at the end of that century, nearly 50 percent of the entrepreneurs were members of these nonconforming sects! The reasons for this have been debated, but it does seem that some community contexts can evoke the monomaniacal focus and obsessions that characterize business zealots.
These founders of the first industrial revolution started their own businesses; they didn't turn around existing ones. Eventually their businesses matured and usually were supplanted by other, more aggressive businesses using new technologies.
So just how feasible is zealotry — either overtly radical or merely incremental — in established organizations? What role does technology play? What about size and institutional structure? And why do some large organizations have an easier time innovating than others? Business incubators have been all the rage in Silicon Valley, but can you really stuff a mature chicken back into an incubator and produce anything other than an angry, ruffled bird?
Most writers on the topic of innovation and corporate change, especially those counseling managers in mature organizations, tend to adopt optimistic activist concepts of change and downplay the importance of context. Other observers, realistic or pessimistic, depending on your point of view, emphasize the importance of context, and some use developmental models to understand how organizations age and harden, constraining their ability to innovate. This review looks at a few of the more recent books on innovation to assess the importance of context in enhancing or inhibiting innovation.
Judging from Gary Hamel's new book, he is a flag-waving member of the you-can-do-anything-anywhere school of innovation. Leading the Revolution is a clarion call for the gray battalions of corporate America to rise up from their trenches and break out of the constraints of conventional management thinking.
This is, of course, not the first attempt to order this revolution. There have been many previous efforts, inspired most recently by the likes of the bloodthirsty Michael Hammer and the hyperactive Tom Peters. The names of those who ordered these large-scale offensives resonate with management scholars like the names of World War I generals in the minds of military historians. Indeed, like a general on the Western Front, Mr. Hamel promises a radical breakthrough and then opens his campaign with an extended artillery bombardment. His targets are the chief executives of failing firms, business school professors, and "big" management consultants.
During the Great War, the frontline infantry on both sides learned to loathe these preliminary shellings, especially those from their own guns! In fact, many of the poorly aimed shells fell short, creating innumerable casualties from what has come to be called friendly fire. I know how they felt. After all, Mr. Hamel is meant to be on our side, the side of outsiders, champions of nonlinear change, and fierce opponents of the rational, linear, formulate-then-implement orthodoxies of strategic management. But with support like this, who needs enemies?