The Innovator-Founder Dilemma

Ozzie had spent his entire life becoming an expert in his field and in the process built his company to nearly 100 employees. Now he is stuck.  Ten years ago Victor started his technology company with a few college friends working together in his dorm room and now it has grown to 65 employees.   He is trapped.  For as far back as she could remember, Ruth had a strong personal commitment to bring value to the underprivildged in her community, so she founded a non-profit and has almost 50 employees today.  She is hand-cuffed.


All three are struggling with a dilemma; their organizations have grown and now they are facing the ever increasing daily management responsibilities of a company.  Few Innovator-Founder’s are strong managers. They start as the main point person for every decision and now are a bottleneck to the organization. They can’t see the way out because they alone try to simlutaneiously handle the current organizational pressures, while creatively focusing forward.  Investors, customers, or employees have expectations that deserve to be met and the Innovator-Founder can not do it with only their own expertise, drive, and determination. They are now a prisoner in their successful business.


This is the innovator-founder dilemma.


The Innovator-Founder’s creativity has made them successful.  Their brains constantly ruminate on ideas for new products and new business ventures.  They see opportunities to explore in every conversation; in every obstacle, always exploring.  In all the forward momentum of their thinking, their responsibilities hold them back. How do they maintain company stability and growth, while also innovating new opportunities?


Innovator-founders are generally experts in their field.  Their talent and dedication to their “big idea” creates a following they are responsible to support.  They are the “star” and all the points of the organization come out of them and point back to them directly. Their management teams reflect them and, when honestly assessed, are more like “helpers” and “star gazers” than bringing the wider universe of talent to them.   Often times, friends and family are in key roles, which makes fierce conversations more difficult and codependency likely. Ultimately, when this happens in the leadership roles, the  new organization suffers from the limited capacities of the “Star” Innovator-Founder.


Key questions need to be asked.


What does the organization actually need?  What activities are required to deliver the products and services?  Which activities are needed to continue growth?  What resources are being used towards what is not needed?  Where are the gaps?


Answering these questions internally is difficult because it’s hard to see reality when the organization has grown.  Growth happened as a result of the Innovator-Founder taking personal risks.  They tend to surround themselves early on in the business with two types of employees, Star’s like themselves or Star Gazers. The star employees think and act with ingenuity and creativity; they are independent thinkers and fuel more ideas, which isn’t always helpful.  The star gazer employees are loyal to the Innovator-Founder, to a fault.  The dysfunction of this type of team is difficult to unwind as the organization matures. Entitled employees, enmeshed relationships, poor accountability, and stalled results are usual outcomes.

An outside view point is invaluable.

If a dysfunctional organization can be corrected from the inside, it would have already corrected itself.  The Innovator-Founder will do well to get honest feedback from a trusted confidante; conversations must be candid to get to the heart of the situation.  The external view helps guide the reality testing, as they answer the “who’s and what’s” of the key questions together.  The best support will come from one who can see the whole picture, without selling a position or a solution too quickly or from a self-serving perpective.


It is difficult to find a “guide” who can navigate the complexity of relationships, and have a vision for the destination.  It is equally difficult for an Innovator-Founder to shift from a position of independence toward interdependence with the outsider.  They often stay in their current uncomfortable situation, struggling but seeming in control.  Some can transition and be effective CEOs, who build strong teams. With a team around them, they can innovate and incubate new products.  Some founders aren’t able to make that transition and best serve the organization by continuing to innovate outside the company, building on more ideas.


My friend Ozzie, decided to hire a CEO for his company.  Now he is pursuing new opportunities.  Ruth has hired more management to take over the responsibilities of the organization, while she explores new opportunities.  Victor?  His company continues to struggle, as he struggles to answer the questions and take action to address the organizational dysfunction.