Leading Innovation: A Conversation with Innovation Expert Ryan Jacoby

How does innovation happen was the question that kicked off Polytechnic Institute of NYU’s Investigatio Scholar-in-Residence series last fall. The question addressed processes — the how of innovation — and on February 8 it turns instead to the who of innovation, its leaders. Guiding the conversation will be Ryan Jacoby, who helped establish the New York office of IDEO, a global design and innovation consultancy with eight offices worldwide.

Jacoby himself is used to leading. He jokes about being one of the first graduates of the Stanford Institute of Design, because so much of his attention and work while there focused on design, strategy, and marketing. The d.school, as it’s known colloquially, wasn’t yet a formal entity, and Jacoby was actually in Palo Alto pursuing his MBA after having spent four years at global consultancy Deloitte. Before that he studied systems engineering at the University of Virginia, where he was trained to look at how things are made — process emphasized once again. NYU-Polytechnic exchanged emails with him recently to learn why Jacoby is turning the spotlight on the who of innovation and to get a sense of what he might touch on during his lecture in February.

Q. Why do most conversations about innovation focus on processes instead of leadership?

A. I'm sure there are more reasons than I'll get to here. One reason is that processes and methods are part of the business vernacular. Business people are used to instituting processes. Process can certainly help promote innovation, yet from the outside, innovation can come across as a little mysterious. Leading innovation requires working with people, a lot of emotion, and a lot of messiness. It's hard. Process is more tangible, and you can — on the surface at least — control it. So I think you get people saying, "What we need is a process!" There's no better antidote to mystery than process.

Q. You've blogged that a large percentage of businesses fail to develop innovation leaders among their employees, yet many larger organizations, such as the U.S. Navy, have leadership development programs. Are innovation leaders different from the kind of leaders those programs nurture and, if so, in what ways?

A. I'm a believer in a multiplicity of leadership modes and behaviors. You learn how to apply those styles through experience. I'd guess that the programs are reflective of most of the leading that goes on within business. It's the same within most business school programs. The need is latent.

Q. How, then, might businesses cultivate innovation leaders, and since you'll be speaking at a university, how can educational institutions stoke the skills and behaviors of innovation leaders?

A. It's a bit of a Catch 22. I think leaders need to practice — or, in this case, lead — innovation to get the experience. In the absence of that practical experience, having a conversation is a good place to start. Educational institutions can bring in more practitioners to teach, and they can add more hands-on learning experiences to their curricula. Institutions can help people develop skills of design — sensing, exploring, and prototyping. More importantly, getting people comfortable with trying things, experimenting, promoting experimentation in others, and productively critiquing others can help to cultivate the pragmatic optimist mindset of innovation.

Q. Your audience may include students, some of who will be new to the job market and unlikely to have much leadership experience. How would you advise them to think about innovation leadership as they begin their careers, since students and graduates are not typically given much responsibility in entry-level positions? Given the economy, this question may also apply to those changing careers.

A. Well, if they get an innovation leader that isn't up to snuff, they can cut them some slack! Actually I think people can lead at any level. We certainly see that at IDEO. Focusing on doing amazing work, being experimental, being optimistic, making things, and finding ways to support their colleagues in trying new things is a form of innovation leadership. If everyone did that in a culture, it would go a long way.

Jacoby will speak at Pfizer Auditorium on February 8 at 6:30 p.m. in the second lecture of the Investigatio Scholar-in-Residence program organized by the Department of Technology Management. The department, in conjunction with NYU-Poly’s Graduate Center, will host a reception to follow.