Why Innovative People Fail

Mike Maddock has seen the enemy – and, sometimes at least, it is him. A self-described “idea monkey,” Maddock, who is the co-author (with Raphael Louis Viton) of Free the Idea Monkey…to focus on what matters most!, knows firsthand the challenge facing many entrepreneurs and leaders: “For idea monkeys, it’s ‘what about this?’ and ‘what about this?’ It’s about possibility. But the challenge is that ideas are easy, and execution is really hard.”

The secret to success, he says, is that “great leaders learn to find a yin for their yang. They have to learn to have humility. They’re passionate about something, and they have to find someone equally passionate about their [areas of] weakness.” Business lore is full of classic examples – Walt and Roy Disney, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, and Bill Gates and Paul Allen.

But in practice, it’s hard to find the right match. At Maddock Douglas, the innovation firm he runs, “I went through three assistants because I kept hiring people like me,” he recalls. “It was fun, and we liked each other a lot, but it amplified the dysfunction. Eventually I hired a friend who has a recruiting firm. He interviewed 12 people who knew me well to find out what I sucked at, and I told him, find me someone who’s great at all this.” He did, and Maddock has successfully worked with his current assistant for a decade.

If you can successfully balance “idea monkeys” with the “ringleaders” who keep the trains running on time, you can avoid the pitfalls of both startups (which tend to flame out) and established companies (which tend to stagnate).  “There’s a reason why entrepreneurs fall off a cliff after 18 months, or three years, or five years,” says Maddock, a fellow Forbes contributor. “You’ll have lunch with the entrepreneur, and they’ll tell you about this amazing idea, and six months later, they’ve got another different, amazing idea. You say, ‘Wait a minute, what about the other idea?’ and they’ll tell you, ‘This one is way better!’ Most entrepreneurs will run out of money, and run out of patient investors, because they’re working on too many things.”

The challenge is different at big companies, he says: “Fortune 500 companies tend to go extinct, on average, after 40 years. They’re efficient, and they’re focused on process, but they lose the ability to have the next big idea and they get ‘Napstered.’ It’s a kind of [mental] tightening. They assume they don’t need to think about new stuff, and then something completely changes their business.”

So how can you develop the right kind of team, blending leadership yin and yang? The first step, says Maddock, is getting rid of the deadweights. “I’ve written that there are three types of people to fire immediately: victims, nonbelievers, and know-it-alls,” he says. “If you’re victimized by things, you’re not looking for possibility.  And a nonbeliever is someone who, when they’re in front of you, says something is great, but behind your back, they say ‘it’ll never work.’ When a leader knows they have a person like that reporting to them [and doesn’t take action], they deserve the staff they get.” Finally, he says, you want learners in your organizations – not know-it-alls who assume they’re always right.

Indeed, the key to Maddock’s talent-spotting philosophy is to always “hire for curiosity.” He says, “I ask people about something cool they’ve discovered lately. I don’t really care what it is, except that they’re passionate about it. Being curious and noticing things is the first step toward having insights. That sense of wonder, that radar for opportunities, helps make great innovators.”

How do you encourage innovation in your workplace? And how do you approach the mix of “idea monkeys” vs. “ringleaders”?

This post originally appeared on the Forbes website on August 22, 2012.

Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.