Monday, October 13, 2008

The innovation paradox

I heard an executive recently in an organization we've been working with say that the more they try to fit innovation into the expectations and organizational issues of their organization, the more difficult it becomes to do any innovation. Whereas before, when innovation was treated as a pilot program with little oversight or bureaucratic attention, the innovations seemed to flow rather regularly. If you've ever worked in a large organization, this should not be a surprise to you, yet it is a constant source of frustration for many would-be innovators.

The innovation paradox is that the more your firm pays attention to innovation, the less likely it will be to be successful at innovation. That's because, like any other foreign organism, the culture and bureaucracy of your organization identifies an external intruder that has not aligned itself with the organization and function of the rest of the body, and tries to force the innovation program or capability to adopt the decision making processes, risk tolerances, timeframes, perspectives and "best practices" that are part and parcel of the rest of the organization. Your innovation process, after all, will surrender to these pressures or will die. That's really too bad, since most of these cultural and organizational structures inhibit the organization from innovating well in the first place, and were probably the reason that innovation was placed in a petri dish outside of the regular processes and culture.

The more you team focuses on innovation, the less likely your team is to be successful - unless you can either create an artificial environment for innovation - think a greenhouse or "bubble" where the regular rules don't apply - or you can change your management culture and bureaucracy to embrace the processes, decision methods and risk tolerances of innovative firms. At that point the bubble is not necessary. As a management team, kicking off an innovation project or program without the "bubble" in a traditional, conservative, risk averse organization is usually a recipe for failure. That's because as soon as the program or initiative seeks to work with others, it will have to align itself to the needs and expectations of the bureaucracy. What's the charge number? Who said you could work on this? What's the return on investment? Why should we attack that market, and if we do, what happens to our existing products? Can you define your product or service and give us a three year projection within +/- 10%? Soon these questions, and the funding process and the risk tolerances, will force your team to work in the same patterns and processes as every other business function, and your innovation team will fall apart because you can't deliver innovations in an incremental, risk averse environment.

Rather, perhaps like the character in the Douglas Adams book, innovation is like learning to fly. In one of his trilogy Arthur Dent learns that flying is learning to throw one's self at the ground and intentionally missing. It has to do with ignoring everything you know to be true and taking the risk. Innovation in many firms is so different from what people do everyday, how they plan, make decisions, fund projects, staff resources, that it is an antibody that will be conformed or killed. Your best hope in many cases is to create an environment where you can prove the value and change your culture, rather than hope to adopt the existing culture and innovate from within the existing mindset.

The problem with executive sponsorship is that often it only travels one level. Even though the executives are advocating innovation, people still need budgets and resources for innovation and the existing teams have specific targets to achieve. Unless the executive team gets involved and changes the way people work on a day to day basis, and encourages risk taking, all the executive sponsorship is just a communication strategy.

To innovate, you've got to do things differently. This includes how you generate ideas and how you manage the ideas, as well as the way your innovation team works within the existing corporate framework. If your innovation team is forced to work within a culture and process that is not innovative, then your innovation team will not be innovative either.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 11:38 AM


Anonymous Anonymous said...

its true that innovation has to be strongly integrated as part of the organization culture for it to flow.

Processes act as a further deterrent to the innovation.

There is a discussion on where the focus is on identifying how an organization can unlock true innovation potential of an employee. Maybe you could look it up. Your thoughts fit in well with the discussion on

8:10 PM  
Blogger Flor said...

I agree with the fact that some corporate culture might be an inhibitor for innovation. How ever, it takes time to change or modify culture so I like the bubble approach better in these situations. I'm posting on this on my blog now. You can take a look at it here

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