Yes and No, the yin and yang of innovation

One of my favorite quotes, attributed to Steve Jobs, was that the hardest but most critical decisions he ever made were the ones to which he said “no.”Great leaders, we are told, have a clear vision, the ability to articulate it, and the charisma to sell it to others inside and outside the organization. You see this at work when leaders speak, when people in the room unconsciously nod in agreement. Such visions are most compelling because everyone sees in them their own roles and aspirations, and is inspired to their own brand of actin.

This is the Yes side of innovation.

yinyangBut a vision is not a strategy. Pushing innovation without setting and enforcing a clear direction—without, in essence, ever saying no—is just pushing entropy. Everyone hears “innovate!” and heads out in all directions, like a bag of marbles split open. The competitive advantage of established organizations, like the ability to throw coordinated action and focused resources on a problem, dissipates overnight as inspired managers everywhere scramble over one another in achieving their version of the vision.

Later, once the energy created by the initial vision is gone, once the resources have been spent competing, people question the leader’s vision or ability to inspire. But that wasn’t the problem.

Somewhere along the way, we lost sight of “No” when talking about leaders and innovation. We like to treat innovation like a thousand flowers blooming, the product of crowds happily playing at work, but neglect the weeding required to turn that activity into a productive garden.

A leader who can create an inspired vision risks doing more harm as good, if they lack the ability to wield “No” just as effectively.