Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Converting the masses to innovation

I was thinking just yesterday that there are some very interesting parallels between the adoption of innovation in a business and the adoption of a religion in a society. Let's use the adoption of religion as a metaphor for bringing a focus on innovation into your business.

A new religion enters a region usually as the result of a person - we call them missionaries. They bring their belief systems and a zeal for sharing that belief system with others. Missionaries are not so worried about personal status, money or fame, just sharing the religion they believe in. Believe it or not (had to throw that in there), I think innovation takes root in many organizations in the same fashion. Each company has a few true believers who want to change the status quo, and will do what it takes to change how people think and act. For many years companies even had a title for individuals who did this dirty work. They called them evangelists.

Now, when a new religion enters a region, it is usually resisted by the existing population if there are strong belief systems. A new religion is therefore almost always initially subversive, and threatens the status quo. Innovation is similar. It begins to force teams and businesses to think about the future. What are the next products, the next services that we should offer? How do we get from here to there? That work almost always requires change.

Next, a religion usually establishes a beachhead in a region. Generally speaking the "establishment" grudgingly accepts the religion and seeks to contain the spread of the religion. Same thing happens in innovation. Instead of infecting the entire organization, we notice that some people can't be persuaded to back down from their ferverent beliefs in innovation, so to mollify them we create a skunkworks. Stick all the "innovative" types out in a place where they can work together and not bother the other folks.

Next is the critical mass moment. For a religion, there's a tipping point. At some point the number of believers grows to the point where the status quo becomes the religion, or the religion is forever relegated to a small minority of people. I can't say for sure what causes the tipping point in religion, but the same model holds in business. Sometimes the skunk works simply can't contain the energy and enthusiasm of the innovators and the entire business gets infected with the belief system. This usually happens when senior management recognizes the value of the innovation system and begins to become a convert. Then what generally happens is that the senior management creates evangelists from the skunkworks and sends the team out to convert the company, with the blessing and backing of senior management.

At some point, the once subversive religion becomes the norm. Let's face it, innovation is initially a belief system. Truly innovative firms believe they can influence the direction of products and services and work consistently to impact the way we work and live, and the products and services we buy. You cannot work at a firm like P&G or 3M or Apple and not recognize the belief systems about innovation and how they are reinforced throughout the culture.

A focus on innovation requires a strong cultural component, and that cultural change can be effected from the top down or the bottom up. Unless the CEO is willing to become the evangelist, I think the best way to impact the culture is through small, innovative teams that demonstrate results. Management needs to set the cultural direction and encourage innovation, and reward success and early failures. The people in a firm that wants to become more innovative need to believe that innovation is important. The culture must reinforce that belief.

Welcome to the church of innovation. In business, there's no higher calling.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 4:52 AM

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