“The definition of insanity is repeating the same actions over and over again and expected different results.”
This quote, often (wrongly) attributed to Albert Einstein, is a perfect description of what has been occurring in corporate innovation for the last 20+ years.
In 1997, The Innovator’s Dilemma, put fear in the hearts of executives and ignited interest and investment in innovation across industries, geographies, and disciplines. Since then, millions of articles, thousands of books, and hundreds of consultants (yes, including MileZero) have sprung forth offering help to startups and Fortune 100 companies alike.
Yet the results remain the same.
After decades of incubators, accelerators, innovation teams, corporate venture capital (CVC), growth boards, hackathons, shark tanks, strategies, processes, metrics, and futurists, the success rate of corporate innovation remains stagnant.
Stop the insanity!
I have spent my career in corporate innovation, first as part of the P&G team that launched Swiffer and Swiffer WetJet, later as a Partner at the innovation firm founded by Clayton Christensen, and now as the founder of MileZero, an innovation consulting and coaching firm.
I have engaged in and perpetuated the insanity, but I’ve also noticed something – 90% of what we do in corporate innovation speaks to our logic and reason, it’s left brain focused, and 10% speaks to creativity and imagination, our right brains. BUT 0% of our work speaks to the hearts hopes, fears, beliefs, desires, and motivations of the corporate decision-makers who ultimately determine innovation’s fate.
We spend all out time, effort, and money appealing to their brains when, in reality, the decisions are made in their hearts.
Of course, no corporate executive will ever admit to deciding with their heart, after all, good management is objective and data-based. But corporate executives are also human, and, like other humans, they make decisions with their hearts and justify it with their heads.
Consider this very common scenario:
A CEO announces to investors and employees that “Innovation” is a corporate priority and that the company will be making a “significant” investment in it over the next 3 years. A Chief Innovation Officer is put in place and Innovation Teams start popping up in every Business Unit (BU).
These BU Innovation Teams are staffed with a few people and given budgets in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. They are told to use Design Thinking and Lean Startup methods to create new products or services to better serve existing or new customers.
Each BU team, excited by their new mandate and autonomy, fan out to talk to customers, host brainstorming sessions, and create prototypes. They pull together business cases showing the huge potential of the new product or service and run experiments to prove early market traction. They meet regularly with the BU President and other key decision-makers.
Everything is going perfectly until, about a year into the work, the company has a bad quarter, or the BU is likely to miss expectations, or an innovation experiment delivers worse than expected results.
Suddenly, everyone is a skeptic. Budgets get cut. Team members are re-assigned to “help” other projects. The team’s portfolio shrinks to a single project. And like that – poof – the Innovation Team is gone.
As apocalyptic as that scenario may seem, the numbers back it up. According to research by Innovation Leader, the average tenure of a Chief Innovation Officer is 4.18 years while an Innovation Manager’s tenure is 3.3 years.
What went wrong? The company did everything by the book – they hired the right talent, established dedicated teams with dedicated budgets, talked to customers and created a portfolio of ideas, built prototypes and made small bets.
Innovation is an investment in the future so one bad quarter shouldn’t be its death knell. But it is.
The reason is that executives know that innovation must be invested in today to produce results in the future, but they do not believe that they will be rewarded for prioritizing the future over the present.
This belief then leads to fear about the uncertainty of future returns and the repercussions of failing to deliver the present, which then leads to fear that their career will stall or that they will lose their job, which then spirals into all sorts of other fears until, eventually, the executive feels forced into a “them or me” decision.
They decide with their heart (fear) and justify with their head (bad quarter).
The solution to this is neither simple nor quick but it is effective – we must dedicate as much time and effort to recognizing and addressing the thoughts, feelings, and mindsets (heart) that executives and key decision-makers face in the pursuit of corporate innovation as we spend on the structures, processes, and activities (head) of corporate innovation.
If this sounds like coaching, you’re right. It is. Just as executives benefit from coaching as they take on new and greater responsibility, they also benefit, in the form of increased confidence and better results, when they have coaches guide them through innovation. This is because innovation often requires executives to do the opposite of what they instinctively do when managing the core business.
Innovation is a head AND a heart endeavor, and we need to start approaching it as such.
To do anything less is the definition of insanity.
*** Originally published on on Forbes.com ***