Cultivating Idea Leadership—Views From an IBM Fellow

Literally hundreds of “idea people” are wilting in Corporate America today. Many feel they are talking to a brick wall when they propose process improvements or new product concepts to their employers (see case study in prior post). They voice frustration with “we’ve-always-done-it-this-way” thinking and silo mentality.

In exploring this topic, I did find one wildly happy idea person working inside a large organization and interviewed him for this post. Meet IBM Fellow John Cohn, Ph.D., an idea powerhouse who has been at IBM for 29 years. He offers six pieces of wisdom for employers who want to keep their creative talent engaged and on board. Enjoy.

Employer takeaway #1: Recognize your organization’s need for “wild ducks.” Show them a career path and help them channel their enthusiasm toward your greatest business needs.


Cohn: “IBM is a funny place. It has a reputation for being buttoned down, yet it still has a strong underground culture of 'wild ducks,' as our second chairman T.J. Watson, Jr., called them. I think large, structured organizations like ours actually recognize the need for a few creative loose cannons to keep things fresh. In fact, when I think of my most senior technical colleagues, the IBM Fellows, they're nearly all a little offbeat.”

Employer takeaway #2: Equip idea people to work across silos and give them permission to do so. “Hands off, not your department” is a quick way to lose an idea person’s motivation.

Cohn: “The most important thing for a company of our size is to make it easy for folks to network and connect with employees in very different disciplines from their own. IBM has a variety of programs to bring folks together around ideas. We use a mix of face-to-face and virtual collaborations. In my experience, having at least some in-person interaction dramatically improves the speed and quality of cross-organizational collaboration. Great thinking can happen over a beer or coffee."

Employer takeaway #3: Invite employees to challenge obstacles respectfully.

Cohn: “Here’s what I tell the people I mentor. ‘When you allow external constraints to shape your life or your work, you are letting others define you. You need to use your passion for your ideas to stand up to the many constraints you may encounter in a large organization.’

“I think people at IBM have the power to do what they know to be right, although many folks lack the confidence to push through obstacles. You have to know when to listen to constraints given to you by your management…and when to move beyond or around them. You need to do this respectfully…but you need to do it. Clearly, the more senior you are, the easier it is to push big ideas. But you are never too junior here to start pushing.”

Employer takeaway #4: Coach your boundary-pushers instead of slapping their wrists. They may need gentle guidance on how to assess feasibility, how and when to present new ideas, etc. (My next post will look at this in more detail.)

Cohn: “You may have to start small and push the envelope just enough to accomplish your goals. When the organization sees you've been successful, you will find you have a little more leeway the next time you need to stretch the bounds.

“I'm not saying it's OK to push the bounds just for the sake of doing so. Ultimately, it all comes down to results. You'll only be able to exercise your full Jedi powers if you're seen to be accomplishing things for the organization. In my experience, this works best when you're motivated by doing the right thing for the organization, as opposed to just focusing on what’s best for your personal career.”

Employer takeaway #5: Provide time and space to learn, think and formulate. Chronic deadlines, overtime and excessive focus on costs will kill your organization’s creativity.

Cohn: “One trend I see in the tech industry is the amount of work expected from each employee is increasing. Any organization that wants to regain its innovative spirit needs to find ways to give employees back the gift of time.

“In the interest of efficiency, many organizations unwittingly remove the 'space' necessary for their employees to innovate. A culture that only focuses on the 'cost' of things—like face-to-face travel, exploratory projects and even mistakes—fails to see the value of these activities. Spontaneous innovation is the life blood of a technology firm. A company that fails to invest in allowing its employees time to meet, think, explore and take risks will lose its creative energy and its creative people.

“Ultimately, I see the responsibility here comes back to the individual. Whatever the demands on your time, you need to ‘make’ time to do the things that allow your creative juices to flow. Maybe it’s taking a class. Maybe it’s reading papers, writing patents, doing a ‘skunk works’ project…or even just thinking. This may sound a little subversive, but sometimes you need to push back on the system and take that time back for yourself.”

Employer takeaway #6: Help employees identify and nurture their passions. Passion leads to high performance.

Cohn: “The most important advice I give to folks I mentor is to stay passionate about your work. It's not always easy to do that, but nothing fuels innovation like passion. Nothing kills innovation, loyalty and performance faster than lack of passion. The key to remaining 'in love' with your work—or at least part of it—is to think hard about what you enjoy doing and work relentlessly to keep that element in your job. A company that recognizes employees need to find and nurture their passions is going to be much more innovative than a company focused purely on day-to-day metrics like cost and quotas.”



CEOs: Do you agree with the six takeaways? What other points do you glean from John Cohn’s remarks?

Managers: Are you thinking, “This sounds great, but IBM is a technology company and we’re not?” What prevents you from acting on the six takeaways?

Idea people: John Cohn advocates taking personal responsibility for idea leadership. Do you feel this is possible in your workplace? If not, what holds you back?


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