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Richard DeVaul on Leadership vs. Management from an Innovation Perspective

The question has been pondered and pontificated time and time again: what is the difference between being a manager and a leader? Anybody who is questioning this will have realized at the very least that the two are not interchangeable –– if you are a manager you are not, by default, also a leader. Perhaps less known is the fact that some people can be great leaders but still lack the equally important skills that good management requires. It is rare to come across somebody who excels at both, and isn’t necessarily something that should be aspired to, especially when attempting to innovate within your field. In the high-risk playing field of innovative organizations, knowing where your strengths best lie can mean the difference between achieving greatness and falling into oblivion.

Below, innovation professional Richard DeVaul offers his unique perspective on innovation leadership versus innovation management, and how both are instrumental in building a business that succeeds. A M.S. and Ph.D. graduate of MIT Media Lab, DeVaul has over twenty years of experience working for companies that ranged from small teams and startups to Fortune 100 companies such as Apple and X Development (formerly Google X). During his time at these companies DeVaul has worked on projects ranging from consumer electronics to high-altitude ballooning and gained a unique insight into what it takes for an organization to become truly innovative, creating value for businesses and society.

For DeVaul, while leadership is about setting a direction and articulating a clear vision, management is creating results –– the process of making and facilitating the operation of a group of people. As stated previously these two roles are quite distinct, but according to DeVaul both are absolutely necessary in order for an organization to successfully innovate.

“I’ve known a bunch of really great leaders who are terrible managers, including some of the billionaire company founders that I’ve worked with,” said DeVaul. “The ones who’ve actually been successful are usually self-aware enough to recognize this, and team up with someone who actually has some solid people management and project management skills.”

Innovation Leadership

So what is required of a leader within the innovative space specifically? First and foremost, Richard DeVaul says it is most important to decide what your strategy is, including whether innovation actually makes sense for your organization. Today innovation has become a buzzword that is equated with success, but the flashiness of the idea can often blind leaders to understanding the true costs, benefits and risks of pursuing it. While driving the change may truly be the best approach for the business, in many cases it isn’t.

If being an innovator does make sense for your organization, you need to be able to articulate why and how, from a business or organizational strategic perspective. This way, you are able to effectively communicate your vision as a leader in a way that will have a ripple effect across the entire organization. With everybody on board, whenever someone is making decisions on the innovative side of things they will have your vision as a frame of reference to guide their decision-making process. According to DeVaul, organizations that are able to do that well make tremendous progress.

“I think Apple was a place that I’ve worked that had some of the clearest, best-articulated vision of any organization. Everybody knew what Apple’s mission was, down to the gardeners. We all knew that Steve wanted us to be making a magical and revolutionary experience for the Apple customer, and if what we’re working on right now wasn’t in service of that, then we were doing the wrong thing.”

That is the kind of clear, defined and articulated vision that is necessary of the leader of an innovative organization. This is because you must often make sacrifices in other aspects of your business in order to achieve the vision you have put in place, and those you lead must understand why these sacrifices are necessary. For example, if it is decidedly part of your brand identity to be technical leaders in your respective space, that means you will need to invest a large amount of the organization’s time, effort and resources into doing big disruptive things within your space. The dedication to these activities may come at the cost of other things that could be deemed important such as market share, but with a collective vision everyone will understand the necessity of those trade-offs.

Alternatively, a good innovation leader may have the understanding of the organization’s strengths and assets to say that they are inherently not innovative. Instead, they will keep their finger on the pulse of the trends within their market and be fast followers of those trends. For example, Internet Explorer was by no means the first internet browser to exist, and yet they were the dominant choice for a great number of years due to their choice to be adaptable rather than the driver of change in that category.

Innovation Management

As an innovation manager on the other hand, it isn’t your job to define the vision or the company, but rather to execute it. Execution is one of the most important and yet overlooked factors in innovation, and management must be able to allocate resources and manage people effectively in order to achieve it.

“One of the most important concepts is that you have to have a portfolio if you’re serious,” says DeVaul. “By definition this stuff is high-risk, and you can’t expect all or even most of your high-risk bets to pay off.

As mentioned previously, resources and time are required to do or create something new, but as an innovation manager you will also need to develop a portfolio process that allows you to try many different things. That may mean you are doing them in a series or parallel, but inevitably in the process everything won’t work out perfectly and a good innovation manager is crucial to seeing to it that the organization is prepared for that. According to DeVaul, organizations that are effective at innovating are constantly trying things internally but all have different processes for doing so, with his experience with Google differing greatly from his time at Apple. The important part was that they both had processes in place for attempting many things, knowing that many of them would inevitably not work out.

“That’s the part of innovation management that many organizations don’t really get. It’s very much about getting your hands dirty, trying a bunch of stuff. A lot of it doesn’t work,” says DeVaul.

For DeVaul, leadership and management are both crucial elements of an innovative organization, and one cannot exist without the other in effective ones. The drive and visionary nature of the leader must work hand in hand with the people skills and organizational mind of the manager, and while it is possible for a single person to possess all of these skills, the smartest leader or manager can identify which they have and seek out others to supplement that which they don’t.

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