Are You An Innovation Bus Driver?

Are You An Innovation Bus Driver?In a recent interview in Adam Bryant’s Corner Office column in the New York Times, Ken Rees, the CEO of Think Finance, identifies several nuggets of insight for the innovation practitioner. In distilling his wisdom about the challenges of leadership, Rees cites three approaches he leverages to drive improved performance at his company: Cookies with Ken, the Bulldozer Award, and the Bus Driver Award. Each of these ideas has relevance for the innovation team leader.

Cookies with Ken is a recurring meeting in which Rees invites a dozen employees from various parts of his organization to engage in a dialogue with the CEO about their work. The innovative aspect of these sessions is not the mere fact that a CEO is meeting regularly with employees. Rather, what is unique is the way that Rees ends each meeting by asking the participants to tell him “one thing you really like about the company and one thing that frustrates you about the company.” This could be an interesting question to pose at the outset of an innovation workshop because we typically focus solely on the latter – pain points – rather than the former – what is working well.

In addition, the juxtaposition of what works well and what is not working well at a company, from the employee’s perspective, could also yield insights into new areas of opportunity for innovation. For example, if an employee mentions a product that is getting great responses from customers as something that is working well, but then also cites an internal sales process that is frustrating his or her efforts to sell that product, the innovation leader could identify a target for improvements.

The Bulldozer Award, according to Rees, stemmed from a lesson learned from an executive coach who told Rees that he was behaving like a bulldozer with his subordinates. That behavior might have worked well at a small company but was ill-suited for a large company. Seeking to make a positive out of a negative, Rees created the Bulldozer Award to “recognize people who are pushing things forward, which allow[s] me to really step back” and offered a plastic toy bulldozer to the winner each quarter. For the innovation practitioner, the Bulldozer Award could acknowledge the fact that in some innovation projects, there is a need for a person to push an idea forward despite significant obstacles, though that person needs to be cognizant of the fact that there is a difference between needlessly antagonizing a team (acting like a bulldozer) and pushing forward in a way that leads to a desirable outcome. In a similar vein, an innovation leader may also want to find a participant in an innovation workshop who could “win” the Bulldozer Award and perform that role while the innovation leader steps back, just as Rees does in his work.

The final idea cited by Rees is perhaps the most intriguing for the innovation practitioner. The Bus Driver Award evolved from the Bulldozer Award and more accurately reflects the challenges of driving innovation in a large organization. For Rees, the Bus Driver Award “recognize[s] people who do a really good job of putting together effective teams.” Although Rees uses the Bus Driver Award as a basic recognition of the work required to lead “cross-functional teams and initiatives,” the metaphor of the bus driver is particularly instructive for innovation leaders.

The bus driver operates the physical infrastructure required to move to a team from point A to point B. The driver knows the destination and knows the different ways to reach the destination (including detours, if needed) but is not as deeply involved in the discussions underway by the passengers riding on the bus (the innovation workshop participants). The bus driver is instrumental to the success of the overall effort, but not engaged like a bulldozer plowing through obstacles and forcing the innovation workshop participants down a particular path. For the innovation leader, the key attributes of bus driver innovation are recognizing the importance of knowing the destination before starting the process and acknowledging the abilities of the riders on the bus to engage in their work without too much interference from the driver. However, the driver needs to stay aware of their work and, as needed, take or provide input as it relates to the overall objective of the innovation effort.

Source: Adam Bryant, “How to Become a Bus Driver, Not a Bulldozer,” New York Times (October 6, 2012). image credit: bus driver image from bigstock

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Scott BowdenScott Bowden works on Innovation Programs for IBM Global Services.

Scott Bowden

Scott Bowden is founder and CEO of Bridgeton West, LLC, a firm consultancy focusing on historical innovation. Scott previously worked for IBM Global Services and the Independent Research and Information Services Corporation. Scott has a PhD in Government/International Relations from Georgetown University.




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