Innovation and the CEO: Lessons from Nobel Prize Winners

Innovation and the CEO: Lessons from Nobel Prize Winners

By Nels Olson, Vice Chairman and Co-Leader of Korn Ferry’s Board & CEO Services Practice

The recently announced 2017 Nobel Prize winners demonstrate a variety of abilities – some of which are fascinating to examine against the qualities required to successfully lead an innovative and sustainable organization.

The physics prize was awarded to a team of scientists who cooperated to construct a device to measure distant gravitational waves and confirmed Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. In contrast, the economics prize was awarded to Richard Thaler, a trail blazer who identified what he believed were false assumptions in contemporary economics and helped to create a new field, Behavioral Finance.

How does this apply to organizations and leadership?  Briefly, organizations need both innovators and collaborators. They need people who can work with new ideas and concepts to develop new products, channels, and work processes. And they need collaborators who can unite people with different perspectives to pursue a common goal.

We know that learning agility is critical to the success of individual leaders, CEOs, and organizations. Individuals with learning agility get promoted more quickly and organizations with highly agile executives have 25% higher profit margins than their peers, according to our research.

But learning agility isn’t uniform. There are five areas of agility: self-awareness, mental, people, change, and results. While all facets of learning agility are critical, especially for those in senior leadership roles, different situations and different strategies call for different mixes of learning agility.

The Nobel prize winning physicists in all likelihood exercised a high degree of “people agility” as they collaborated with many other scientists and across several institutions to build the LIGO detector that ultimately enabled them to detect waves from a collision between two massive black holes 1.3 billion years ago.

A leadership parallel is an organization that has a strategy of growth through external acquisitions.  To merge organizations efficiently and get people from the two organizations to work together requires leaders with a high level of “people agility.”

Dr. Thaler, the Nobel prize winning economist, was different type of innovator who likely scored high on mental and change agility. His innovative work riled the economic establishment a bit. He told a story of a famous economist at the University of Chicago where he taught who refused to make eye contact when they passed in the hallways due to their intellectual differences.

The organizational counterpart to Dr. Thaler might be an engineer who invents a new product that makes obsolete an existing product manufactured by the organization. The rolling out of the new product and the demise of the existing product could very well create dislocation and acrimony from people invested in the older product.

In today’s fast changing economy and marketplace, many organization are asking employees to become more innovative and creative.  As demonstrated by the recent Nobel prize winners, learning agility has several different flavors. Leaders who understand and can calibrate the varieties of learning agility in their organizations, will have an edge in driving innovation and growth.