Tuesday, June 14, 2011

On Managing Innovators

I have been reading Alfred Sloan's My Years with General Motors on the advice of a mentor who referred to it as the exception to his rule of not reading business books.  I find it very interesting thus far, mostly waiting for car names I recognize, watching out for now canonical management points as they evolve, and generally appreciating Mr. Sloan's writing style.  On page 78 I came across the following letter from Mr. Sloan to one of his engineers, working on a new style of car and not finding success after a recent launch:
Dear Kettering:-
It is most important in our opinion that your mind be kept free from worries foreign to the development of the air cooled car and other laboratory work. 
In the development and introduction of anything so radically different from standard practice... it is natural that there should be a lot of "wiseacres" and "know-it-alls" standing around knocking the development.
In order that your mind be completely relieved as to the position of the undersigned... we beg to advise as follows:
1st. We are absolutely confident in your ability to whip all problems in connection with the development of our propos[al].
2nd. We will continue to have this degree of confidence and faith in you and your ability to accomplish this task until such time as we come to you and frankly state that we have doubts... you will be the first one to whom we will come.
We are endeavoring in this letter to use language such as will result in complete elimination of worry on your part with respect to our faith in you and this work and if this language fails to create this result, then won't you kindly write us quite frankly advising in what respect we have failed?
Due to the fact that criticism are bound to continue... would it not be well for you to agree with us that at any time you have occasion to pause and wonder about our faith and confidence in you... that you pull this letter out of your desk and read it again.

Wow.  Just, wow.  Talk about permission to try and fail, to succeed and know that you have either the full confidence of your leadership, or their explicit promise to find you as soon as they begin to waiver.  How much time must have been saved without Mr. Kettering having to wonder what others thought of him?   Management of innovation can be difficult, but I will list this amongst the great examples.

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