Innovation in Big Companies: A dog that doesn’t hunt?

I’m back and ready to jump in on one of my favorite topics: Innovation.

Innovation is everywhere. Everyone wants it. And there are plenty of highly paid innovation consultants doing very well, thank you very much.

But what does innovation in a big company really mean? Can it actually add value, or is it just another buzzword that deserves an early and unmarked grave?

The simple truth is that without innovation, your company will die. It may not happen today, or tomorrow, but it will happen. Innovation is the fountain of youth for companies. It’s kept most of the world’s top companies alive. I’ll defend that statement with data in a future post.

But the equally simple truth is that deep in their bones, most companies don’t want to innovate. They love to handwavingly talk about the need for innovation, but they don’t actually commit to it. It’s easy to find hipster execs that chatter about Hackathons and Google’s famed 20% time, but the big companies that embrace innovation are rare birds.

Innovation isn’t a simple in-house program, it requires a fundamental re-writing of corporate DNA.

When it comes to innovation, what most big companies are actually good at is Innovation Envy.

Innovation envy is the corporate equivalent of bird flu: it spreads like crazy and is probably bad for you.

Almost every innovation conversation I’ve had with a big company executive focuses on two things:

  1. We need to act more like a startup!
  2. We need ideas!

Both of these are dead wrong.

When someone says this, I usually have to bite my tongue hard to avoid blurting out “Oh, you want to be broke with no resources and betting the farm on an unproven product for an unproven market?”.

After all, that is what startups actually do. Big companies are fundamentally incapable of acting like a startup. I’ll address that in my next post.

And as for ideas… Yes, there is an idea (sometimes two) at the core of every innovation. But innovation itself is a process, a pipeline that goes from idea to implemented product (or service, or business process, or …).

The vast majority of companies spend a great deal of money on idea harvesting while utterly ignoring the rest of the process. Pick your analogy: it’s like planting seeds and never harvesting them; drawing plans for a house that will never be built; committing to hosting a dinner with friends by buying a bread roll.

Ideas alone are never enough. You need a process.

What’s worse is that idea harvesting without an execution process is incredibly toxic. The first time you roll out your shiny new innovation process, employees will enthusiastically contribute great ideas.  Then they will watch them wither and die as the ideas become stuck in the hellish quagmire of corporate approvals and budgets. Within a very short space of time, every employee will be utterly dis-incentivized and well trained to ignore all future requests for innovation.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at how many innovative projects happened in spite of management, not because of them. Much of it comes from rebel groups who do as they damn well please. Management embraces them only after it has become apparent they are on to something.

There’s lots to talk about here, so this is the first of a series of posts. Stay tuned!


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