Friday, December 14, 2018

The Six Million Dollar innovation fallacy

A few days ago I wrote a blog post about the relevance of the Six Million Dollar man to innovation, noting that the show was based around rebuilding Steve Austin, making him better, stronger and faster.  Many corporate innovation organizations need the Six Million Dollar man treatment.  Every firm needs to be innovating more effectively, faster, with better outcomes and increasingly with more partners.

Today I'd like to talk about the other side of the Six Million Dollar man innovation.  As a kid I was entranced by the fact that a regular guy could have his arm replaced with a bionic arm that allowed him to lift exceptionally heavy objects, until an older friend of mine pointed out that the arm might be able to lift heavy objects, but it was attached to a flesh and blood human, who was still subject to the weaknesses and frailties of being human.  This has a lot to say about corporations becoming more innovative - you can't simply bolt on an innovative process to a conservative "body" and expect the two to work together seamlessly.

Setting the context

If the first two paragraphs have you wondering, let's recap.  The Six Million Dollar man was a TV show in the 1970s about an astronaut who suffers a horrific accident, and parts of his body - an arm, two legs and an eye - are made "bionic".  The replacement limbs he receives are more powerful and more capable than the flesh and blood variety.  Steve Austin, the character in the show, goes on to do important work for the US government because he is an augmented human and capable of doing important work that a normal human might not be able to do.

There are some big gaps in the physics of the show, however.  A human simply cannot lift an exceptionally heavy weight just because their arm is bionic.  For many of the feats Austin undertakes, in reality the arm would separate from the body.  They never really dealt with these issues on the show, but in real life we have this challenge - can you bolt on a really powerful limb to a less powerful organism and expect them to work effectively?

How this relates to innovation

The big question then, from an innovation point of view, is can you bolt on a really interesting, powerful innovation capability to an organization that remains complacent and conservative, focused on efficiency and meeting the next quarter's numbers?  Does this powerful innovation capability, like Steve Austin's arm, attempt to do things that the corporate body simply isn't capable of doing or even understanding?  And when the innovation capability takes on more interesting and risky propositions than the rest of the company can bear, what happens?

Depending on the linkages between the innovation capacity and the rest of the organization, a couple of outcomes are possible:
  • If the innovation capacity is loosely linked to the rest of the organization, the risky ideas are likely to be considered as wildly outside the scope of reality, and ignored or rejected.  No fatal dismemberment takes place but the innovation capacity faces a slow atrophy as its ideas are ignored.
  • If the innovation capacity is tightly integrated to the rest of the organization, and the organization isn't attuned or aligned to new innovation activities and outcomes, chaos or disruption will ensue.  As the innovation team creates really disruptive ideas that the conservative operational team is called on to implement, the operational processes and people will either seek to simplify the idea, to fit into their traditional ways of thinking or working, or will try to force radically different ideas into a process not meant for them.
What this ultimately means

What this analysis suggests is that unlike Steve Austin, who is part human and part bionic, organizations need to be fully innovative or fully conservative.  Trying to be a "bit" innovative as a business is a lot like Steve's arm:  as long as the bionic arm is acting like a regular flesh and blood arm, doing the things that a normal arm would do, there's no problem.  Once the bionic arm tries to do things it is capable of, but the body isn't capable of, dramatic failures will increase.

Thus, it is risky to attempt to bolt on a powerful innovation process to an unwilling, conservative and efficiency-oriented business.  You'll need to encourage the business to become more innovative - more "bionic" if you'd like to think that way, or train the innovation capacity to work at the level, rate and risk tolerance of the rest of the organization - and what's the point in that?

This analysis leads to another insight:  you can either accelerate and improve your internal innovation capabilities across the organization, in all groups, functions or geographies, or you might want to consider simply acquiring horizon 2 and 3 innovations. Increasing innovation in large corporations may become less about building or bolting on powerful competencies and more about incubating great ideas in small companies and acquiring exciting new ideas as tested products and services.

Can you acquire innovation?

There are opportunities and risks involved even in new idea acquisition, however.  Compelling new ideas and products may have different business models or reach customers through different channels than your existing products do, forcing your team to broaden its reach substantially or make choices between new, exciting but disruptive products or the tried and true products that align to existing capabilities. 

In the end you are left with the conclusion that whether you plan to create your own disruptive ideas through a bionic capability or you plan to acquire new products and services, you must rethink your internal organization, operating models and culture.  Just as Steve Austin and his bionic capabilities required people to think differently about augmented humans, real innovators, whether they build or buy compelling new ideas, must rethink their strategies, operations and capabilities.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:59 AM


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