Inventor and entrepreneur James Dyson has announced that his eponymous household-gadgets firm is opening a new technology campus on the site of a disused MoD airfield in Wiltshire. Dyson has described the new 517-acre plot as “an investment for our future, creating a global hub for our research and development endeavours”.
Indeed, according to a recent FT profile, Dyson is ramping up its R&D expenditure this year to a whopping £7m per week. That’s equivalent to 18% of sales: a proportion the article describes as “significantly higher than most industrial companies”. Ploughing as much cash as possible back into product development has always been a defining policy of the Dyson brand, and it’s clearly working. Why, then, are so many leaders reluctant to put as much energy into innovation? What’s the prevailing mentality in the UK that makes Dyson such an exceptional case?
“The important thing to bear in mind here,” says The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper, “is that James Dyson has a track record, cultivated over decades. He’s noted for innovation, he’s well respected, he’s doing something great, which is investing in the UK – and crucially, people trust in him. So he’s able to justify the investment in innovation, because he’s trusted to deliver results in a slightly longer term than most people would expect them, in cases where leaders haven’t got that trust, or that kind of track record.”
Cooper notes: “There are some fascinating contrasts here between Dyson and the central figures of our other, most recent blogs: Philip Green isn’t too worried about his reputation – it doesn’t much matter to him because he’s long been an established leader and most of his career’s behind him. Travis Kalanick is very aware of his reputation, and conscious that he still has a way to go in his personal development. But James Dyson is able to use his reputation to reassure shareholders that he’ll deliver in the end.”
On the specific point of innovation, Cooper points out, many experts would agree that one of the most important aspects of leadership is vision. “It means keeping an eye on the future, it means looking for trends, it means being aware that you’re going to have to change,” she says. “And many leaders say those things – ‘We love to innovate; we love to be creative’ – but the reality is that you have to convince a lot of people who don’t necessarily have your vision, and may not want to change, because on the whole it’s quite comfortable keeping things the way they are.”
She adds: “One of the primary characteristics of us humans is that we have a certain drive for continuity, to help us make sense of our lives. But innovation is very disruptive. Combine that with the requirement for investment – and the emphasis that businesses typically place on short-term gains – and it’s not surprising that people shy away from the new. There’s a risk with innovation. But there’s less of a risk with doing what you’ve always done, or doing it a little bit better, and driving down costs or increasing profits that way.”

For further thoughts on disruptive leadership, check out this previous Leading Edge article

Image courtesy of The Royal Society / Wikimedia Commons