A problem plaguing many organizations is anemic innovation. That is, they try too few things to stay relevant over the long haul.
This became apparent, over a 3 year period in my career, when a new CEO took over at my then employer. He came from a company with a healthy culture of innovation. Trying lots of things across the organization was in the company’s DNA and had been for decades.
Up to that point in my career, innovation was a top-down, bureaucratic exercise in the companies that I had worked with.
Like previous years, my group presented our plans to the new CEO, hoping to gain approval on one, maybe two of the five things we were presenting.
After our presentation, he sat quietly. We expected the typical deep dive testing the thinking on our assumptions, then the somewhat arbitrary reasoning that would result in green lighting things related to his ‘vision’ and shelving everything else.
He said, “Sounds good. What do you want from me?”
We asked, “Well, which one do you think we should try?”
He answered and asked, “You can’t try all of them?”
We were surprised. We didn’t know what to do. We invited him to can some of the projects. “Well, it would take a lot of resources to try all of them.” What were we saying? We had been infected by anemic innovation.
He responded, “How about you try what you can and let me know how it goes?”
That opened the door to 2-3 year period of innovation at our company that was fantastic. We tried a bunch of stuff and learned a bunch of stuff and a lot of good things emerged.
Then, he left. Like his predecessors, he was given a short runway to change the company’s trajectory and what emerged while he was there didn’t take root until after he left. In fact, one of his last acts was to approve a national rollout of the company’s most successful promotion in a generation, that would change the company’s trajectory over the next 3 years. This promotion had a negative cost of client acquisition, which was UNREAL! I had not seen anything like it before or since.
That promotion was a result of one of the things that we tried that previous CEOs would have never allowed because it sounded so nuts. Even I didn’t think it would work, but I was curious to see what would happen. I was proven wrong and glad for it. The story of that promotion, itself, could make an interesting business movie and I’m glad to have been a part of it. It also opened my eyes that things that seem like real stinkers can surprise you, so its best to have an open mind and let results speak for themselves.
Sadly, the innovative CEO received zero credit for it.
His replacement quickly returned the organization to the centralized, top-down innovation of the past. Two other innovations that had emerged from our group untouched by the previous CEO, suddenly came under micromanagement of the new CEO, who spent a good deal of time deciding whether a sign should have a 9 or 12 point starburst on it (answer: nobody noticed either!).
Eventually, the new guy signed his own pink slip by discontinuing his predecessor’s successful promotion. He didn’t like it because it wasn’t his idea and he overestimated how easy it would be to replace a promotion with a negative acquisition cost. Such promotions do not grow on trees, which I hope was printed on his cancellation notice.
For those 2-3 years, work was fun. We spent more time thinking deeply about what customers want, talking to customers face-to-face and finding effective and inventive ways of giving them what they wanted.
When the bureaucrats returned, we spent more time trying to please the bureaucrats’ whims and personal preferences. Customers became afterthought, again. It should surprise nobody which culture results in long-term success.
The really sad thing, the innovative CEO doesn’t know, to this day, what he did for the company. I think the innovative culture was so ingrained with him, that it didn’t seem at all remarkable to him and he never realized what a difference it made.
After living the contrast on a day-to-day basis for years, I can spot this innovation anemia a mile away. It can infect any human organization: companies, charities, churches, educational institutions, clubs, sports teams, you name it.
It’s the simple belief that they need to do the ‘right things’ rather than ‘try a lot of things.’ Organizations run by folks who believe it’s about doing the ‘right things,’ will eventually be displaced by competition or obsolescence, though sometimes they manage to get really, really lucky.