Wednesday, July 06, 2016

The Declaration of Innovation

In the spirit of July 4th, and more importantly focused on the real need for innovation and the significant resistance to innovation in larger companies, it occurs to me that innovators need to create their own Declaration of Innovation.  In 1776 a group of small colonies banded together to throw off what they saw as burdensome government in which they had little to no say.  They felt taxed with representation, they were forced to quarter the soldiers they saw as occupiers.  They resisted a large but distant governance and were surrounded by Royal sympathizers.  Often, in the Revolutionary War, neighbor fought neighbor, some spurred on by the desire to change the status quo, some driven to retain it.  Sounds a bit familiar to innovators I'm sure.

You, too, need a declaration.  You need to establish the rationale for innovation, identify the consequences of inaction, and publish the document to your entire organization.  Luther didn't stop at 95 Theses. He posted them where everyone would see them, on the church doors.  The Founding Fathers ensured that everyone would see the Declaration of Independence by sending copies to every colony.  This is both a communication device and a "burn the boats" concept - leaving no opportunity to backtrack.

Let's break down the Declaration of Independence and see how we can create a Declaration of Innovation, to help create distinctions between those who would create something new and valuable, and those who cling to the status quo.

Jefferson, Franklin and Adams wrote the Declaration of Independence in four parts.

The announcement

"When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve political bonds...".  In this paragraph the authors are setting out their purpose and telling everyone what they are up to and why it matters.  In the first sentence they announce they are splitting from England and go on to let the reader know their rationale.

What should innovators do?  State the obvious:  CEOs, Executives and middle managers recognize that the business as usual status quo will not allow our companies to prosper and grow.  We innovators declare our intent to innovate, more consistently and substantially.  We believe this is vital, and we want you to understand our thinking and rationale. Innovation is the key to growth, differentiation, revitalization and new profits.

Basic Principles

Jefferson built on ideas and principles established by Burke, Locke and others when he said that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness".  He goes on to write that "That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it".  Here Jefferson is laying out basic beliefs or principles that all men should aspire to, and notes that when a government or any entity developed by man blocks an individual from gaining the liberties to which he is promised, the people have the right to alter or abolish that government.

Innovators have the same rights and responsibilities.  As innovators we have the responsibility to help accelerate growth, differentiation and profits in our organizations.  Allowing the status quo, inertia or a focus on the past to limit innovation activities is dangerous.  While it is much more difficult to alter or abolish a conservative leadership or culture than to overthrow a distant government, much as Jefferson writes here it is our responsibility to try to change it, or to better yet leave altogether.  We have responsibilities to ourselves, our colleagues, our shareholders and others to drive more innovation, to forestall obsolescence, to compete effectively.  Those who would hold you back should be convinced of your dedication and of your purpose.

The proof points

Jefferson notes how patient the colonies had been under increasing duress from the English government.  He makes a list of the items that the English government (especially focused at the king, since Jefferson and other leaders were hoping to appeal to Parliament and the English people against the King) has pursued which they believe intolerable.
  • He has refused his assent to laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good. 
  • He has forbidden his governors to pass laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them. 
  • He has refused to pass other laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of representation in the legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
And so on.  These are the examples Jefferson uses to demonstrate how unreasonable the King has been to his subjects, the patient, loyal colonists.

Likewise, we innovators need to be able to document our proof points.  In doing so we are recognizing the past success of our organizations but also noting the slowing growth, the focus on cost cutting, the lack of interesting new products and services.  All of these are evidence of a lack of innovation. Further, if we can point out how other competitors are succeeding at introducing new ideas, how new entrants are whittling away customers and market share, we further our case.

The Punch Line

At the end, Jefferson gets around to talking about (in very explicit terms) what the colonists intend to do.  He says "therefore", meaning, based on all these reasons, "publish and declare, that these united colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent states; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved".  At the time they were writing this, they conducted an act of treason, which was punishable by death.  In other words, they set out a very specific goal after numerating their proofs, and were prepared to carry out their intended path.

Just as it's difficult to change or modify a corporate strategy or culture without an awful lot of acceptance and buy-in from the top, it will take a lot of courage to declare that you'll pursue innovation within your corporation regardless of where the consequences lie.  Most innovators simply resort to the silent exit, leaving the corporations where they feel stymied, or worse they simply hold on, hoping someone will recognize the need for innovation.  The founding fathers signed a treasonous document, which could have cost them their lives if the Revolution failed.  They believed in what they were doing that much.  Do the innovators around you believe in innovation that much?  If not, you'll never declare your innovation independence, and never change the culture or strategy of a business.

This comparison may seem a bit farfetched - overthrowing a distant government versus trying to engage a business in more innovation - but the analogies and investments and costs are very similar.  Both the Revolution and any innovation are attempts to create better outcomes, and face long history of established hierarchy and culture.  Change is always resisted until it springs forth in often unimagined ways.  To succeed, a lot of leading lights must get fully behind either idea, and leave themselves little room to wiggle out of their commitments.  And, like many great movements (Protestant Reformation, Magna Carta, Das Kapital, the American Revolution) the ideas need to be well communicated, in public, in a very compelling way.  The colonists would not have succeeded if they wrote the Declaration and kept it secret.  It's publication forced colonists to choose sides and commit more than they would have otherwise.  The same is true with innovation.  A public commitment of investment, resources and people is required, or all innovation will fritter away.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 8:32 AM


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