If innovation isn’t easy, you’re doing it wrong

After some time working in mature companies it occurred to me how difficult companies make their innovation.

There is more action in just getting ideas through the political and operational hurdles. Ideas compete for executive approval and company resources. Ideas that win executive buy-in are then treated as if success is a fore drawn conclusion.

That’s how it worked at one of my former employers. My group went to the executives each year during planning with a list of 10 ideas to have them pick the 2-3 they wanted to try.

One year, we had a new CEO from a company with a healthier innovation culture (though he didn’t know it and neither did I, at the time).

We presented our 10 ideas and sat there with an awkward silence. He broke the silence after a bit, “So, what do you want from me?”

“Which 2 or 3 should we try?”

He responded, “Is there a reason you can’t try them all? I don’t know which one is going to work. Figure out ways to try them, even if on small scales, to find out.”

That completely changed how we approached our work. While he was there over the next three years we tried lots of stuff and found a lot of success. We spent zero time on the politics of trying to get buy in and almost all of time trying to figure out how to market research, proof of concepts, pilots and tests to figure out what would work for customers.

I now call this the ‘discovery innovation culture.’ It has some basic underlying principles, like the chances of success of any one thing is low, so try lots. Also, an ounce of customer reaction is worth 5 pounds of executive politics.

Sadly, I don’t think he knew the impact his innovation culture had on the business. He also did the typical CEO, top down ‘5 point plan’ like his predecessors and when that failed to make an impact, as most of such plans do, the board soured on him.

Ironically, the month after he left, the board approved rolling out one of the projects we discovered under his discovery innovation culture. It had a major impact on the business. He didn’t get a lick of credit for it.

It wasn’t his idea. It was a crazy idea that wouldn’t have seen the light of day in the political innovation culture. But, he didn’t stand in its way when one of the field leaders wanted to test it, like his predecessors would have.

Thinking back, I think he could have bought himself more time as CEO if he recognized what was happening and told the Board, Look, when I got here the innovation pipeline was bureaucratic and anemic. Innovation is the way to grow, but you have to be extremely lucky to grow if your pipeline only has 1 or 2 projects in it at a time. No wonder you have been struggling. I’m going to change that, but it’s going to take 3-5 years to see scalable projects coming out the other end of the pipelin. This is how we did it at the company I’m from and it works. Be patient.

After he left, his replacements brought back the political innovation culture.

In the 3 years under him my group alone rolled out about a half a dozen things that has stuck with the business.

Since he left about 10 years ago, the business has been going sideways and they’ve just been tweaking the stuff we rolled out. The energy has gone back to the politics of getting executive buy-in rather than just trying stuff and nothing new has come of it.

When I see organizations that are struggling to stay relevant, I tend to see the political innovation cultures that result in anemic innovation pipelines that usually do not produce enough successes to keep the business ahead of its evolving competition, which is innovating at faster rates in more discovery innovation cultures.

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