Steve jobs advised that "it's better to be a pirate than join the navy." Jobs meant to inspire Apple employees to embrace an anti-establishment zeal. He wanted them to work untethered from the usual constraints of corporate cultures—to be rebels, misfits, round pegs in square holes, et cetera.
Forty years later, being a misfit has gone mainstream. Even the most venerable organizations are trying to embrace Jobs' message as the world shifts rapidly around them. For a few years, they've been launching innovation teams, labs, accelerators, and incubators in an attempt to disrupt themselves before they get disrupted by upstarts and start-ups. Everyone, it seems, is trying to find a way to create a reliable, repeatable process for innovation. You can even now become a certified innovation leader!
The results are usually mixed, or worse. Being a pirate in the navy is hard.
Tendayi Viki's book explores why it's hard. His is a sobering message. Being asked to innovate in an enterprise or other large organization is an uphill battle. Viki shows us why.
The enterprise is not a startup
The first thing to realize is that the enterprise is not a start-up. Nor should it pretend to be.
An enterprise and a start-up operate in completely different contexts, Viki says. A mature organization faces a wholly different set of concerns and constraints than a start-up might.
Some of these forces are external. They may be beholden to shareholders, regulators, or other stakeholders that a start-up can worry less about. The mature organization must also continue to maintain its existing business model or advantage while continuing to discover a new business model.
Often the forces are cultural. Certain attitudes and beliefs have had a long time to sediment themselves within the enterprise. Some of these may be completely anathema to the values and the tools of innovation. After all, "fail" is a four-letter word. So is "risk."
Businesses are loss averse. Instinctively they will protect what they have, even at the cost of future opportunities. They've accrued layers of bureaucracy and process to protect what they have and ensure predictability. Individuals throughout the organization—especially middle management—are incentivized to succeed against current business models, not new ones. A top-down, deliberate strategy is the norm, and initiatives are undertaken only after long periods of planning and evaluation. Lengthy business cases and scoping efforts by design act like governors, slowing change and limiting volatility. This posture makes it very hard to innovate.
Many organizations adopt the trappings of innovation, laying a thin veneer over old ways of doing things. This innovation theater plays out at multiple levels. Sometimes, teams are assembled and put on a compelling show with workshops and whiteboard walls cluttered with sticky notes. But instead of delivering value, they churn in endless discovery phases, never translating their work into viable products.
Meanwhile, leaders build and promote these teams without every providing the kind of support they really need to win. Such efforts deliver a quick PR boost, but rare is the organization that follows through on its commitments. Members of these labs are asked to innovate while conforming to business-as-usual processes. A set of the usual anti-patterns stifle innovation and discourage legitimate practitioners. The team's asked to come up with "cool stuff," but isn't provided with guiding objectives or strategy. They're required to come up with business plans and rigid, long-term road maps in order to secure necessary funding. They're expected to come up with new products, but aren't allowed to experiment for fear of damaging the brand. Iteration is frowned upon; instead, teams are expected to follow through on early concepts even if evidence points them in a new direction. Failure is punished instead of treated like a learning opportunity.
Too often, executives provide physical space for innovation, but not the creative or psychological space. The plan and execute model that may have sustained the core business for years is ill-suited for the rapid experiment, learn, and release cycle of innovation.
More management than creativity
But organizations that cling to their old habits and behaviours will have a hard time of it. Instead of new ideas, they find only tension and frustration until the innovation team ultimately is disbanded (voluntarily or not).
Innovation is not bean bag chairs and sticky notes. Many organizations have been misled by the "visionary" narrative of innovation, which presents successful entrepreneurs as gifted geniuses whose inborn talent eludes and mystifies the rest of us. This old saw of a story elides the effort and research that supported their efforts. Innovation can be fostered and facilitated, learned and developed. But it's hard work, more management than creativity.
Innovation needs a clear strategic focus that aligns with that of the broader business. And, it needs the support of policies and guidelines that ensure that innovators are able to collaborate well with the core of the organization. Without a strong, concerted effort toward integration, there will always be tension between the innovation teams and the others. And when it comes down to protecting the existing business and the possible future business, the existing business will win every time.
Organizations must give up the notion that there are no bad ideas. This is simply not true. There are plenty. Ideas are easy; viable business models are hard. The innovation lab must do more than come up with new ideas. It must focus on sifting through those ideas to find the diamonds in the rough—the rare viable business model that aligns with the broader aims of the parent organization.
To get to these gems, other ideas and initiatives will need to be killed. Organizations need to expect failure and embrace it as a learning opportunity. This can be uncomfortable in companies used to making big bets on big ideas. So, don't do that. Instead, make many small bets so bad ideas are eliminated as quickly and cheaply as possible.
Instead of big business cases and big budgets, employ metered funding. Give innovation teams enough runway to meet specific goals that will let them know if they're making good progress. If the results are good, grant them the next round of funding. If not, send them back to the drawing board with what they've learned.
And if the idea is successful? Celebrate it. The only way to win over skeptics across the business is by putting together a track record of success. Deeds speak louder than words. Nothing is as convincing as success.
Viki doesn't mince words. This is very, very hard. Even with early success, organizational inertia and cynicism are difficult to overcome. Every organization has people who are content and comfortable with the way things are. For them, change can be frightening.
Innovators need to remember that they are not entitled to anything. "Nobody," he writes, "owes them their faith or attention." Every win will be hard fought.
But progress is possible. Start by learning from those who have championed innovation in the past. What helped them gain traction? What pitfalls did they uncover? Those champions may point you to early adopters—others who know there is a better way of doing things and can help you advance the cause.
It will be an arduous journey. But a pirate in the navy can't venture forth and return with a bold vision and expect everyone to sign up. That's not their mission.
Rather, it's to win over skeptics and prove to them that innovation can succeed. They need to establish entrepreneurship and innovation as a respected function. That's not something that can be imposed on others. It's something that has to be earned.
And when the methods of innovation do win broad adoption? That's real transformation.