Pandora's box and innovation
Pandora, to jog your memory, was given a box by Zeus and told never to open it. Her husband, Epimetheus, told her never to open the box, as he was warned that Zeus had probably created a nasty trick for humans. However, once Epimetheus was away, Pandora was tempted. She knew that many humans had disobeyed the gods and come away unscathed. She opened the box and all manner of ills escaped. She did manage to free hope as well, to offset the evils that had been set free.
I think in many ways executives act like Pandora when it comes to innovation. They want to see what's in the innovation box, but only want to let a very little portion escape. They want to carefully control what happens and snuff it out if it doesn't meet with their expectations. However, innovation isn't often going to meet with current expectations. It's difficult to let just a little innovation out of the box, so executives allow only tiny innovation experiments for fear that innovation may take hold and change the business and the culture.
Many executives are very concerned about opening Pandora's innovation box, to free all the innovation possibilities. They are smart to be concerned, because innovation truly unleashed in any business will create distraction from the existing processes, create significant expectations within the employee base and the customer base and, most importantly, change the corporate culture. Executives realize that opening the innovation box completely can change everything. So, in order to use innovation to their advantage while protecting the organization, they open the Pandora box of innovation only on occasion, and quickly shove the spirit back in the box once the innovation initiative is complete.
To continue on the classics theme, therefore, I'll argue that another famous story is perhaps the more appropriate approach. In Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Marc Anthony predicts the coming conflict when he says "cry Havoc, and let slip the dogs of war". For innovation to take hold, we can't parcel it out in small doses, carefully controlled. In those instances it is always unfamiliar and difficult. It never takes root, and it never takes off. While both Pandora's Box and Anthony's words have negative connotations - freeing the spirits and releasing the dogs of war - for innovation to take root and change your organization for the better, you must open the box completely and let the genies of innovation work their magic. Firms that attempt to parcel out innovation by the drink and then refocus the business on existing business as usual processes waste the chance to create a new innovation business as usual capability. When innovation is treated as a capability that can be "turned on" and "turned off" with little support otherwise, you teach your culture that innovation is a difficult, ad-hoc and dangerous experiment. No one wants to participate and everyone is uncomfortable when innovation is unleashed. Further, they know that any innovation effort will be short-lived and many are simply experiments.
Unlike all of Pandora's evils, you can put innovation back in the box. That's unfortunate, because there are hundreds of poorly scoped, poorly executed innovation experiments under way right now, most of which will be snuffed out when executives put innovation back in the box. Unlike the evils, once freed innovation can be quickly captured and placed back in the box. Only when innovation takes root and becomes part of the culture can it truly make a real difference to your organization, but far too often it doesn't get the chance.