Is a Difficult Boss the Key to Breakthrough Innovation?


I just read an HBR article titled Why You Won’t Get Breakthrough Innovation by Being Nice, the author of which, Simon Rucker, believes that truly transformational, paradigm-shifting innovation is not possible in an organization that believes in an always pleasant work culture. Such an organization might manage incremental innovation on a regular basis, but not breakthrough, paradigm-shifting ones. According to him,

[Nice work culture] slows down and obfuscates the transformational innovation process because it creates the expectation that work should be fun and devoid of the difficult situations, demands, and emotions the process creates.

Rather, he suggests that breakthrough innovation can only happen under the guidance of a ‘singular, visionary – and frankly autocratic – someone in charge’. While this may be true in the cases he references – of Steve Jobs and Thomas Edison – it seems a rather narrow assessment.

Take, for example, Google – a company that anyone can agree transformed the world through innovations like the search function, google chat, google maps, gdocs and umpteen others. Google also believes in a very nice work culture, though, and is something that is often talked about as a signifier of its innovativeness. Eric Schmidt isn’t known for being as exacting and demanding as Jobs, or for storming into offices and yelling at employees. And yet Google continues to innovate, in offices designed for playing, goofing off, eating healthy, and generally making yourself at home, replete with lava lamps, beanbags and even slides.

This isn’t to say that I completely disregard Rucker’s argument about the value of a powerful individual with a singular vision and drive. Strong leadership is definitely a key ingredient for innovation, but so is having the space and leisure to be creative and the freedom to propose silly ideas and fail, and not having your boss yell and scream when that happens. Ultimately, there needs to be a balance between a nice nice work culture and a challenging one. As I’ve written in an earlier post, too much nicety and trust can be a dangerous thing, but that doesn’t mean that the answer lies in the other extreme. Your thoughts?

*Hat-tip to Maryanna Abdo (@maryabdo) for pointing us to the HBR article

About Ayesha Vemuri

Ayesha Vemuri is responsible for thought leadership and outreach efforts at CKS. She has undergraduate degree in Visual Art from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where she also studied such varied subjects as biology, literature and the humanities. At CKS, she is responsible for curating the Design Public blog, managing our various social media platforms, organizing Pecha Kucha Nights and contributing to the intellectual content of the Design Public Conclave and other CKS initiatives. Find her on twitter at @ayeshavemuri.
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2 Responses to Is a Difficult Boss the Key to Breakthrough Innovation?

  1. Ekta Ohri says:

    Interesting argument! While flexibility is required to explore more ideas, authority may be necessary to align them with overarching framework of innovation

  2. The title is as interesting as the blog post!
    I personally feel that when we think about Google the innovation seems to be a collective team effort and each employee gets a chance to contribute in building ideas and participate in thought leadership as oppose to when I think of Steve Jobs and Apple in reference, it seems more like an individual’s achievement where thought leadership seems more controlled and the team as a back-end support to shape his ideas.

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