An Innovative Culture Absolutely Requires This Unique Capability

What you need is a ‘chaos pilot’ on board at your company. If you don’t have one, think about adding one.


5 min read

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In my line of work, I have the privilege of mentoring and working with startup entrepreneurs who often offer unique and remarkable ideas that, in my opinion, have the potential for significant commercial impact.

Related: 9 Ways Your Company Can Encourage Innovation

Unfortunately, many of these ideas end up in the dust heap of forgotten businesses that never get traction. 

Why do so many great ideas fail? The reality is that many promising new ideas are derived from products or services or systems that have yet to be considered. They are disruptive in nature and typically exist only in the abstract.

Dealing with these ideas therefore demands a unique set of skills that differ from general management capabilities typically associated with running a company.

In a recent article at Harvard.com, Nathan Furr, assistant professor of strategy at INSEAD and coauthor of Leading Transformation: How to Take Charge of Your Company’s Future, explained that a critical, and often missing, element for innovative teams is the capacity to function in the abstract. Furr refered to this capacity as negative capability.

To understand the concept, consider what Robert French of the Bristol Business School has called “positive” capabilities. These skills, as they pertain to new ideas,have been connected with successful general managers, because they can:

  • Understand the complexities of new ideas
  • Understand and manage the process by which new ideas are executed

  • Understand and manage the necessary roles within an organization or team needed to execute on new ideas

These characteristics are typically technical skills that involve structure and discipline. They are valuable for managing any company, especially one operating in a business environment requiring constant innovation. Such innovation is needed to iterate new and bold ideas, but these skills alone are not enough. 

The reason is that, to stay ahead and execute on a regular basis, new ideas, especially disruptive ones, often take a team and the entire organization into unchartered territory where there exists no precedent, historical structure or “road map” to guide them. In these cases, positive capabilities based on structure fall short of execution.

Related: What My 15-Plus Years at Apple Taught Me About Building Innovation from Scratch

As French explained, this type of change “always arouses anxiety and uncertainty,” and teams that are unprepared tend to move toward avoidance tactics — defaulting to known structures, which then lead to the collapse of the new project.

For that reason, it is critical to have members on the team who can handle uncertainty and unknown outcomes and also have the fortitude to pivot when necessary. These types of leaders are what Furr calls “chaos pilots.” To be an effective chaos pilot yourself, you need more than technical management skills. Here are the three other skill sets he lists:

1. Divergent thinking

To think divergently, Furr explains, individuals need to be able to synthesize a multitude of information and “uniquely connect new information, ideas, and concepts that are usually held far apart.” This skill requires the ability to stay constantly focused on a mission while constantly processing new information.

Leaders who operate as divergent thinkers often surround themselves with talented individuals who can handle the day-to-day operations; that capability frees up the leadership team to collaborate and collect valuable data.

2. Convergent action

According to Furr, great chaos pilots do more than just take in new information. They “execute on new ideas in order to create something tangible.” In other words, they synthesize all the information and leverage it to effectively execute on new ideas.

Far too often, entrepreneurs fall short here, getting consumed by FOMO (fear of missing out) and  failing to prioritize, or at least balance, output time with input time. Doing so creates an entrepreneur with a wealth of information, but ultimately provides very little value.

3. Influential communication

Finally, thinking divergently and being able to “connect the dots” are great skills, but if a chaos pilot is unable to communicate new ideas effectively and, as Furr states, “inspire other leaders and decision-makers to believe, support, and act on a novel idea or opportunity,” the idea will stop short of execution, no matter how well synthesized.

Over the years, I have been a part of innovative teams (at times leading them) whose sole priority was developing new ideas for clients. I recall a few times leading those teams through a comprehensive mind-mapping process meant to spark new ideas. In these situations, we inevitably would stumble on a truly remarkable idea or two, but like our team, those ideas weren’t rooted in a stable and established process; sometimes they weren’t comparable to what we were already doing.

Our ideas would also sometimes get lost in the insecurities and anxiousness of the group and never even be presented.

Related: Your Company Needs an Innovation Culture, Not an Innovation Team

Great management skills are clearly needed to lead a company and execute ongoing operations effectively, but to consistently generate and see great new ideas through to execution, it is critical to have an effective change manager — or chaos pilot — on your team. And while these skills cannot be taught, they can be learned and nurtured through experience and an environment that encourages and supports risk taking and failure.

How have you facilitated the execution of great ideas? Please share your thoughts with me below.

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