Why do some leaders get better innovation out of teams than others? According to Jonathan Brill, "They know simple tools, the type that are only simple once they're explained."

Brill is something of a Silicon Valley legend and the author of Rogue Waves: Future-Proof Your Business to Survive and Profit From Radical Change. He was the global futurist at HP, the creative director at Frog Design, and his innovation firms developed more than 350 products.

Brill believes great innovation leaders know when to Captain and when to Coach. To him, "One of the most common management failures is choosing one leadership style when the other is more appropriate."

Captaining is necessary when the leader is the only one who understands the context, they need to maximize predictability, and the system is simple enough for them to understand.

Coaching is the better approach in situations where it's possible to build a shared mental model, the system is too fast-moving and complex to manage from the top, and it is too complex for one individual to understand.

Brill has identified specific criteria for when to use each approach. Captaining is often the best path in situations that benefit from consistent processes. It removes unknowns and increases efficiency, but it also leaves organizations vulnerable to what he calls rogue waves--massive disruptions caused by the collision of individually manageable changes. Recent examples include Covid-19 and the 2008 financial crisis.

Captaining versus coaching

Brill's research suggests that "as the world moves faster and becomes more connected, we will see more rogue waves. When they hit, captaining becomes dangerous. There are too many big decisions for any one person to make."

That's why, even in the most efficiency-driven organizations, leaders need to give teams autonomy in calm times. They need to practice innovating and coordinating without the manager in the middle. You don't want to take up big-wave surfing when the big wave hits. One common complaint of accomplished Captains is that they have previously tried coaching, which didn't work for them. Sometimes this is due to the leader, but often it's the result of the situation.

The four criteria for coaching

Brill argues that teams must meet four criteria for coaching to be effective. When they aren't, chaos frequently follows.

1. Context

Does the team understand the operating environment and which historic assumptions are inaccurate?

Without this knowledge, teams often try to solve the wrong problem. For instance, in the mid-2000s, Blockbuster was the dominant chain of video rental stores. The company apparently turned down an offer from Netflix to sell itself for $50 million. Instead, Blockbuster spent on the brick-and-mortar stores that had served it so well. As a result, Blockbuster went bankrupt. Netflix was the top-performing stock from 2010 to 2020.

The Lesson: Teach your people to understand the future. Otherwise, they will repeat the past.

2. Goals 

Do your staff understand your definition of success and failure?

Brill once worked with a top software company that hired employees for their skill in shipping one-off software projects. When the organization shifted to selling software subscriptions, employees revolted because of seemingly irrelevant metrics. "The challenge wasn't the change in business model; it was management's failure to communicate the reasons behind the new performance indicators," shares Brill.

The Lesson: If your people don't understand why you measure, it doesn't matter what you measure.

3. Alignment

Are your people interested in and incentivized to achieve the goal?

Carly Fiorina was hired as HP's CEO to build its consumer categories, but middle management had a strong interest in maintaining the firm's business-to-business roots. Fiorina inevitably failed.

The Lesson: Unless the change benefits the people who need to make it, they aren't likely to go out on a limb to help.

4.  Fast feedback

Are you receiving updates frequently enough that you can course-correct?

Brill helped to turn around a technology integration program whose success was dependent on hitting multiyear milestones. The CEO took a hands-off approach and let the program run for 18 months without a check-in. The result, Brill says, was a project whose predictable failure threatened the future of the organization.

The Lesson: Many projects aren't critical, but leaders need to keep tabs on decisions they can't undo.

Brill points out that Captains don't have innovation challenges because they captain, and Coaches aren't effective because they coach. "Both are prone to failure in new situations that don't meet all of the criteria for coaching, but require rapid innovation at all levels of the organization," he says.

The best innovation leaders rapidly adjust the situation to make coaching possible, and then they set clear expectations and captain where it isn't.