All of us face a choice to protect the status quo or lead the way down uncharted paths. For long successful firms, the tendency of those in charge is to protect what’s working. They become museum guards or what I describe as caretaker managers. Innovation in these settings is an incremental, tactical change to something known and comfortable. Innovation is the wrong word.

Even in the face of impending business model annihilation, caretaker managers care little for pursuing the changes needed to save their firms. They are fat, dumb, and happy. Employees, on the other hand, should be screaming at the top of their lungs. It’s time for a bit of rebellion and some new leadership.

“Not Worth the Fight”

In a wide-ranging dialog with the CIO of BIGCO (not the real name), I listened in fascination and horror as she described the realities in her firm. I paraphrase:

We’ve moved IT from order-taking to leading innovation. Our efforts have cut costs, improved our firm’s abilities to execute, and given us a lifeline to the future. And yes, the results have propelled the share price into the stratosphere.

However, what I cannot do is convince top management that there are innovations on the horizon that will annihilate our business if we don’t find a way to leverage them. They celebrate our small victories, but won’t explore scaling them to reinvent our business. Given the share price and recent success, and the spate of very visible stock option exercising, no one wants to hear that we may not be necessary to our customers in five years.

(Note: the answer to the old question of, “If your business were to disappear tomorrow, would ANYONE care?” is increasingly, “No.”)

The final comment from this CIO:

I’m leaving to go to a younger firm where I don’t have to lead a revolution that has no chance of success.

All of us face a choice to protect the status quo or lead the way down uncharted paths. Click To Tweet

Celebrating the Wrong Victories:

The discussion with the CEO is is a variation of the discussion I’ve had with way too many individuals who fought valiantly in pursuit of innovation, but failed to break the back of the dominant logic and business-as-usual political environments in their firms.

To the innovator leaders, the small wins model the way forward. They are proof points that the innovation can and will work. They offer rocket fuel for moving to the next step.

To the caretaker managers blinded by their own reflections, the small successes are THE proof points of their superior insight and leadership agility. The wins to them are the victories with no need to move further, except incrementally. This is proof that they will be alright.

Newsflash: there are no businesses that are safe. You will not be alright.

Your firm is not a museum. It might be featured in one however, if the caretaker managers prevail.

Fair Warning, They Will Eat Your Lunch:

Amazon and other technology companies plan on eating your lunch.

Entire industries of intermediaries stand to be decimated as blockchain gains momentum.

Do I need to rehash, AI, advanced robotics, autonomous vehicles, and 3D printing to name a few, as innovations that threaten so many other industries and businesses?

Very few firms will make it out of this next decade.

None will make it out untouched. Any survivors will be entirely different from what they are today.

If you are a caretaker manager, it’s time to exercise your options and get out of the way.

For the rest of us, committed to finding our way to the future, leadership requires open rebellion against the status quo.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

I confess to being a bit disappointed that the CIO above did not want to take the fight for the internal revolution to the next level. When questioned, she described it as a seemingly impossible political battle. While I struggle with “impossible,” I get it. There’s a younger firm there somewhere waiting for leadership and help to scale and eat an industry. Caretaker managers need not apply.

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Leadership Books by Art Petty