Sunday, March 20, 2011

Innovation and Implementation: Have You Got the Balance Right?

Whether you admire him or not, Richard Branson is a unique entrepreneur who ensures that he has the right management team to implement his ideas; and where Virgin’s success is undoubtedly due to his own ability to ‘innovate’ and consistently develop and deliver on a brand promise; as well as his willingness to be a central part of the brands publicity.

Branson has firmly held views on management, where “good managers are worth their weight in gold: they are the people who organise and handle the pressures of an ongoing business – the glue that binds the business together. Entrepreneurs have the dynamism to get something started – they create opportunities that others don’t necessarily see and have the guts to give it a go, but are not necessarily good at the nuts and bolts of running a business,” (cited in Altman, W, 2009, p.81).

The problem that many organisations encounter is having the correct balance of innovators and implementers within their leadership teams; where each individual is consciously aware of their own specific strengths and those of the team. One of the biggest failings of many great ideas is when the innovator isn’t honest enough to see that they don’t have the skills themselves to implement the idea successfully. Often these individuals will continue on a path of self-destruction, knowing the ‘idea’ is sound, but without being able to recognise their own failings in implementation, until it is too late.

As Wilf Altman highlights, when it comes to the Virgin Group and Richard Branson, “purists among top business school academics and senior executives might argue that no single group can run railways and airlines, mobiles and media, finance, health clubs, and spaceships and musical businesses. It goes against all proven arguments in sticking to core businesses. Diversification on this scale has rarely worked; yet Richard Branson has proved the opposite can be true,” (p.81).

There are some reports that he’s a tough business man, and ruthless with investors; yet I’m not sure why this would surprise people. He has had individuals and organisations wanting him to fail since he started the Virgin phenomenon 37 years ago. The lengths British Airways were prepared to go to in an attempt to destroy Virgin Atlantic is a good case in point.

What’s unique about the Branson-Virgin empire is that it is organised into about three hundred limited companies, creating a branded group of separate, individual organisations. Although as a combined entity the Virgin Group is the largest group of private organisations in Europe, each individual organisation is relatively small in its sector.

It hasn’t all been about success for Branson and he’s had his problems like any other entrepreneur and innovator;

1) The Virgin Media ‘disagreement’ with BSkyB;
2) Its £4.3 billion debt (payment of which has been deferred to 2012);
3) Starting and failing in a drinks war with Coca-Coal (though it could be argued that the publicity helped Virgin soft drinks in the US);
4) The failure of Virgin Clothes;
5) The unfulfilled dream of taking over EMI;
6) The failed efforts to save Concorde; and
7) The failed bid for Northern Rock.

Even with the few failures, the Virgin record (no pun intended) speaks volumes of its own success, where Branson leads from the front and believes “business requires astute decision making, leadership, discipline and innovation if you want to turn entrepreneurial ideas into outstanding business,” (cited in Altman, W, 2009, p. 81).

So the question must be: how good is your organisations mix of innovators and implementers; and do you know with certain which skills reside where? – Since you’ll need both sets of skills to be sure of optimising your future sustainable growth.

As a leader you need to be able to recognise both of these unique talents and manage them appropriately; and as an individual you need to recognise and embrace your core strengths as you are unlikely to be good at both. Believing you have both sets of skills could just be the equation that ensures you self-destruct your own career.


Altman, W. (2009). Branson: The Global Brand Builder. Engineering & Technology, Vol. 4, Issue 2, p.80-81.

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