Corporate innovation: why bother?

The chest-high sea of cubicles pooled out in every direction as if I were standing in a lake. It was more like a hive; square after square buzzed with purpose and brainpower. This was home to a huge company’s celebrated innovation accelerator, with dozens of exciting new projects championed by hundreds of mold-breaking employees.

Newsroom

There was, of course, a foosball table. A ping pong table too. Those were mandatory props for any group claiming to be “innovative,” as was free caffeine. Food was harder to find. Those unwilling to suffer the breakroom roach-coach marched in small tribes to the three or four decent restaurants nearby, security badges flapping at their waists.

There was a Standford MBA, an MIT Ph.D., a former Navy Officer and a Princeton Ph.D.; and those were just in the cubicles I could physically touch from where I stood. Some had been entrepreneurs and all had done at least some time in the corporate machine before elbowing their place to the innovation table. Now in the corporate innovation accelerator they worked tirelessly to pioneer their visions of what the company’s next billion-dollar business might be. Small fortunes were in play every minute. Rogue warriors thrived or perished by their wits, inspiration and perspiration. Keyboards clicked. Whiteboards danced. PowerPoint slides of transcendent epiphany flickered through the air like Fall leaves on a windy day.

Seven years later I stood in the exact same place, but the picture had changed. The building was now dark, in the middle of the day, except for sunshine through sparse windows and a couple fluorescent lights in one corner of the building. The foosball table was mysteriously on its side and the ping pong table had a bunch of cardboard on it. If I had to guess, I’d say there were only nine people in the building, but you couldn’t hear or see them except for chance encounters at the coffee machine or the occasional swing of a restroom door. Looking into a cubicle as I passed; an employee was posting his resume online. It was a ghost town, and despite being indoors it wouldn’t have seemed out of place for a tumbleweed to wander down the hallway.

What the hell happened here? If you’ve ever been to an actual ghost town, the rubble of a once-great building or the ruins of an ancient civilization, you know how it feels to be haunted by this question. There’s quiet sadness in the shards of broken dreams. You can almost hear the whispers.

Abandoned-Building-PhotographySomewhere between 70% – 90% of new projects launched by corporate innovation groups typically fail, depending on the company or industry. It’s been this way for as long as anyone can remember, regardless of whether you’re Steve Jobs or Thomas Edison. Most survivors tend to be incremental innovations that are squarely in-the-box, not out of it. The most promising out-of-the-box projects are overwhelmingly canceled after a few years or become so blunted by peer political interests that they lose their edge entirely. With odds like these, who needs enemies?

Why do we bother? If you have a stable corporate job somewhere in the mothership, why risk it for a zany innovation boondoggle that could sidetrack your career, tarnish your reputation, burn out your passions in a flash of futility and possibly leave you broke?

I’ve asked this question to corporate innovators over the decade. Typical responses include “it’s exciting to start something new,” “you get to impact a whole business rather than just a tiny part of it,” “you can get experience it would take much longer to realize inside the mainstream company,” and “I want to feel what it’s like to start a billion-dollar business.”

Those are all real answers; that is, I believe them. However these soft reasons employees give for leaving the relatively hard career stability of mainstream corporate jobs aren’t enough. These reasons appeal to a minority of employees – the renegades and mavericks. There has to be a little Han Solo inside you. Most employees (and senior managers) are a little too pragmatic to explore deep space in the Millennium Falcon when there’s nothing particularly wrong with building a peaceful civilization on nearby Endor.

But there’s another reason, I think; a reason that appeals to pragmatists and idealists alike. Yet nobody mentions this reason, perhaps because it may seem a little unseemly or tacky. So I’ll mention it, and I think you should too. Loudly.

If you’re part of an innovation team that wins big, really big, you can milk that win for the rest of your career. It can be the corporate equivalent of tenure. Ever been in a meeting where people go around the room and introduce themselves? Everyone sounds generic until one person says something like “Hi, I’m Lisa, and my team started the Crest Whitestrips business at P&G.” All of a sudden there’s a half-second pause, eyebrows raise and someone says “wow” before introductions continue. Respect. Or maybe they helped start the iPod at Apple, Post-It’s at 3M, Viagra at Pfizer. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is they were part of a huge success, and now they’re the most interesting person in the room.

Ever noticed someone in your company who’s always hovering around interesting projects and is clearly high ranking, but you have no idea what they actually do? Let’s call this person Ol’ Gil, and it’s as if Ol’ Gil never does anything at all, but for some reason he’s been at the company since the stone-age and will never get fired. Then, when you casually ask a coworker “what does Ol’ Gil do anyway?” you’re told he helped start the Silly Putty business at Crayola. You pause for a half-second, your eyebrow raises, you say “wow.” You see Ol’ Gil in an entirely new light. Respect. Then the trance breaks and you think to yourself “cool, but wasn’t that, like, 100 years ago?”

Greatness-vs.-MediocrityDamn right; and if that isn’t a great reason to become a corporate innovator, I don’t know what is. Whether you stay at the same company or move to another (at a significant salary and org. chart boost, in most cases), you’ll never be seen the same way again. Where many fail, the honey for winners can be sweet.

We live short lives. One strategy is to take small steps. You may not get very far, you may not be remembered, and you might get laid off anyway, but there’s less chance of slipping day-to-day. Another strategy is, every now and then, to take a giant leap. If you fall, dust yourself off and get up again. If you land, you’ll find yourself way ahead. Regardless of whether you’re a pragmatist or an idealist, there are tradeoffs for all choices. It isn’t about how bold or meek your career is, but how to establish the right mix of both. If you’re too bold, you could fly off the rails. Yet if you’re too meek, you’ll run ragged on the corporate treadmill for decades and barely move an inch. Does your career have the right mix? What about your life?

100 Years from now nobody will remember the drones with stable, safe corporate jobs – not even their own families. When you hear your great-great grandfather was a bookkeeper at a paper company, it’s charming but forgettable trivia. But if you learned your great-great-great grandfather invented the coffee grinder, you’d mention it to random baristas all the time. You are the ancestor of your unborn kin and are responsible for making your story worth telling.

These days we don’t have many heroes with swords, battle armor and a reputation for sacking cities. Instead, in the corporate world, we have rockstar innovators. Sometimes they’re called “Founders,” other times they’re just the ones who “launched the… (insert big win here).” They’re remembered. Their careers are rewarded. They build the walls that protect more timid bureaucrats for generations. Without them there would be no castle in the first place, and tomorrow’s castles won’t build themselves. Yes, it’s good to have a stable corporate job, but somewhere along the line it was an innovator who made it possible.

That’s why we bother.

This Post Has 14 Comments

  1. Kim

    Thanks for reminding me. 🙂 A great note to finish 2014 and start 2015 on. Let’s win and milk it!! 🙂

  2. Andreas

    Innovators make the world and the future!

  3. Roderick

    A nice and motivational read to start the (new) year. My headline summary would be: to make a difference, you need to innovate, which leads to one question: what is the true value of ‘corporate’ in the article?

  4. Erik

    We feel exactly as you do, here at Innovation Embassy! We started a new strategy of “installing Innovation Embassies” in Co-working spaces, universities and now also businesses, aiming at business ecosystems and social entrepreneurship. We know something about mass collaboration and we feel that this is a good way to start new business ventures. One thing though in relation to your article; The businesses we’re aiming for are not corporate businesses, simply because, the moment top management thinks in terms of employing an innovation team and an innovation director, it’s game over. That businesses is no longer built for innovation but continual businesses operations, which is to be respected from a business point of view. It’s just not going to lead to the surprising new solutions everyone is hoping for. The reason is very simple. That kind of innovating is a knowledge development exercise implying; if you’re not part of that development and exploration every day, you’re not easily going to understand the ideas and exercises that emerge. Once a businesses starts to operate in mostly a state and mindset of indexing, structuring and detailing, it looses its capacity to look up. It does happen though. Once in a blue moon. Unless they understand the difference between looking down and looking up. We’re introducing a language for innovation that helps everyone understand how to work with ideas. Takes 5 minutes to learn. BUT! We actually aim for businesses that do not have innovation teams – exactly because of what you write.

  5. Arshi

    Great Article, about how and why. Cortical question where to position an innovation decides the path this seed of value will germinate into a fruit of success. Innovation should be kindled outside the boardroom, in the mind of the consumer-user.

  6. Ron

    Great article. As I see it, the key questions it raises are… Why do so many would-be innovators end up face down in the mud, with arrows in their back & what can organizations & individuals do to escape this fate?

  7. Josh

    I read Erik’s ‘response about corporate innovation ; As someone who has pioneered three decades to bring the field to a professional level I. “innovation is a discipline, not a cult” I must disagree with his characterization of corporate innovation. For decades top management is portrayed as idiots that are always undercutting real innovators they employ; just because they must adhere to marketing criteria and costs and profitability etc., and if they do, then “its all over for innovation”. Nonsense, Innovators must be skillful in dealing with constraints. It is harder to do. Does that make innovators that work within industry sheep.? No, It just that much more challenging…but look around and see some of the work that has emerged in the last ten years. Consultants do not do it all. And I have been a consultant, a Chief innovation officer an entrepreneur, an educator and someone who has also worked on the assembly.line. One innovators are regarded themselves as elite then it is truly over.

  8. Erik

    Josh – I know where you’re coming from and I get it. I too have been a CIO (responsible for radical innovation program for more than 3 years) at one of the most prominent Med Tech firms in Europe, as an Astrophysicist who pioneered user driven and for me more importantly, open innovation, co-creation and non-facilitated web&mobile based innovation platforms. The latter is really tough to do because it argues that anyone – who ever they are – can be part of an innovation process, all the way to bringing ideas into reality. A platform that has not yet been built. We’ve been researching and building so far six platforms and it’s really a tough nut to crack. We’re applying for funds right now to build our 7th platform and we believe we have not only the blueprint but also the test+redesign+launch strategy. The reason I mention this is because: It’s a knowledge upgrade to get to the final solution. Innovation for me is not just better, it’s different. And that means solutions beyond what we can see and put on a post-it from the start. I’m not calling top management idiots – I think they’re brilliant at doing what they do, which in most cases is to administer an idea they’ve been handed from somebody else. The problem is that they’ve been handed the knowledge of how to innovate for free. When that happens, you’re not disciplined for working with innovation the way innovation needs to be worked. I do see brilliant management that understands how to maximize business and ensure long tail product/service continuance, prolongation and upkeeping that certainly can include new technologies, designs etc. It’s more of what you got. However the moment you want to can-open a new market, access new segments or entice with whole new experience and start thinking in terms of “where can take the customers”, it’s a different ball game and I’m sure you’ll agree. You say look around? That’s exactly what I’ve been doing for 15 years and I’ve been privileged to work with some of the best leaders and still do. However – and I tell them this – if you as an executive do not get the knowledge process of designing and building something different, it’s going to sound like noise. These are not necessarily the managers of the companies I’m talking about. If they’re ready to look up and get their hands dirty, they can do something different – if that’s what they want to do! The leaders our program is not for are the managers who look to their Excel-sheets for answers. They don’t get knowledge albeit they may be very good at business. The businesses They have structured their operations such that people are cut off from what’s happening across the company. Then they wonder why nothing new is emerging. Then they hire people to think differently. Which they do. And they stop listening to what they say. This is not a question of weather the innovators get the constraints of market analysis, business strategy, costs etc but how they work and talk. I mean innovators who get both business and creativity. I’ve seen rapid prototype teams, new business teams, technology scouts, innovation jam sessions – you name it and the ones who “succeed” keep secret, what they’re actually doing. The sequencing in communications, events and deliverables becomes crucial for how long time such teams are left alone. Doing different is doing different. With these executives, that works against their grain. I’m not saying they’re wrong or anything. It’s just not what we’re aiming to work with. The executives I’m looking to work with and whom I work with think in terms of “how do we make it work” and “where can we take the customer”, which is an all-hands-on-deck continual exercise. It is THE modus operandi in these companies. What I’m saying is very simple. If you as a manager think in terms of structure, then that’s what you do, which is not thinking in terms of knowledge developing. Not saying anybody is wrong or right.

  9. Marcus Kirsch

    Amen Brother!

  10. Michael Bina

    What the hell happened here? J J Watt – UW-Madison All American – sums EVERYthing up for me: “Success is not owned; it’s leased. And the rent is due every day.”

  11. Gunnar

    Great article. The academic Sara Sarasvathy has called the development of new products for new applications “the suicide quadrant” and “Technology of foolishness”. We have started an experiment that tries to fill the gap between research results and radical and marketed innovations. We will connect technical researchers with entrepreneurship students It was surprisingly easy to find 50 such students and 50 such researchers that are willing to travel and spend a weekend. Now we are curious about the outcome. The project website is ict2b.net

  12. Samantha

    Excellent discussion! As I see it, it is absolutely worthwhile to bring innovation into corporate and to foster innovation within the workplace. However, innovation doesn’t just flourish from giving free coffee or playrooms for the employees…although it feels good. Innovation comes from opening up and thinking out of the box. It means connecting talent, fostering communication inside and outside the boardroom and with the outside world. I work for a company where we use an open innovation platform that makes this possible.

  13. Erik

    Samantha, is that right? which one do you use and what’s good about it?

  14. Marcus

    I agree with the notion that it needs skills to navigate through most companies’ politics and silos. However, I think I have some answer to why many innovation efforts are failing, besides the many contradicting agendas and stakeholders in any business scenario.
    Running a good business means 99.5% of the time to make it more effective. That means making it efficient, without failure or risk. This is why most people only get incremental change (faster horses, rather than building a car) as they can only create a more efficient iteration. It’s like polishing the edges of something.
    Innovation is taking large risks, will cost some money without return first and that is oftentimes something the majorty of people is not comfortable with. Add to that a human condition know as cognitive bias and a lot of things are easily described.

    So at least this is my explanation for the status quo.

    Now one question I have is how one can have an innovation platform. That sounds like caged innovation for me. My background has always been open innovation. Very flexible, hard to tame and hard to put into a particular set of rules, let alone a platform. How do these platforms work? Are they like project management software, or just internal hackathons?

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