Some conversations stick with you for a long time.
Some conversations take your breath away the moment they happen.
A few weeks ago, I had one that did both.
“Everyone is focused on ‘humanizing’ work,” my client said. “I wish people would de-humanize work. I would love nothing more than to be treated like a line of code or a piece of equipment. We treat our code and equipment better than we treat our people.
When a piece of equipment doesn’t work, we send in teams of people to fix it. We study what went wrong, we fix the error, and we take action to make sure it doesn’t happen again. We don’t expect a line of code to work in every operating system, to be able to do everything in every context. We know that we need to adapt it for iOS or Android.”
As I picked my jaw up off the floor and put my eyes back in my skull, she continued.
“But people…when a person is struggling, we don’t send anyone to help. We don’t ask why they’re struggling or study the situation or take action so that no one else experiences the same problem. We expect the person to either fix their own problem or to leave.
We expect everyone to be able to work in every situation and when there’s a mismatch, we expect the more junior person to ‘expand their toolkit’ and ‘learn to work with other styles’ or to leave.
“If we treated our people the way we treat our products, our people would be so much happier, and we’d be so much more successful as a company.
Talk about a truth bomb.
And it’s not just her company. It’s almost every company I’ve worked for or with.
Think about it. What happens when a project is going off the rails? Or a product is malfunctioning? Or a shipment is delayed or missed? The team, maybe even the full company, shifts its focus to solving the problem. People, time, money, all of it funnels to fixing the problem and getting things back on track.
But what about when a person or a team is struggling? Or about to burn out? Or devolving into dysfunction? They become the problem and people start to back away. They’re given self-guided training. They’re reminded of their job responsibilities and expectations. They’re put in a new role and made someone else’s “problem.” They’re let go from the company.
When a product isn’t meeting expectations, we rush to help.
When a person isn’t meeting expectations, we back away.
Maybe we do need to start treating our people like our products.
Maybe de-humanizing work is the key to making it work for humans.
We all love Innovation but there are times when it isn’t the answer. In fact, there are times when it is the absolute last thing a business should do.
Do NOT innovate if:
- Your current business is declining
- You need immediate results
- You want to play it safe and follow rather than lead
- You’re afraid of losing customers
- You’re afraid of falling behind the competition
- You’re getting pressure from shareholders
- You want to hang out with famous CEOs/be on TV and the cover of magazines
- You read an article/book/had a conversation and it doesn’t seem that hard
- You want to do something fun/different/exciting/noteworthy
- You can
Luckily, there is a corresponding list of times when Innovation is the answer.
DO innovate when:
- Your current business is solid
- You need a pipeline to deliver new revenue now AND in 3, 5, 10 years
- You are willing to take smart risks so you can lead instead of follow
- You want to better serve your customers
- You are confident in the business fundamentals and its future potential
- You believe in investing and building for the long-term
- You care about the long-term health of the business and your people
- You are committed to learning and building an organizational capability
- You are willing to work hard for a long time to do the impossible
- You will
Did you notice some themes in those two lists?
In the first list, you’re reacting. The beliefs, biases, and prejudices of your unconscious mind are controlling and driving you. An event occurred in your environment and now you’re afraid of losing something – great business results, competitive advantage, stakeholder support, your reputation. You’re afraid of losing something so you’re looking for something to save you and innovation is a bright shiny object that everyone loves, and no one will fault you for pursuing it.
In the second list, you’re responding. Your conscious and unconscious minds are working together to take in information, considering the well-being of those around you, and factoring in your beliefs and values. An event occurred in your environment that presents new information. Instinctively you perceive it as a threat but then reframe it as an opportunity to create, change, or improve the status quo. As a sign of your commitment and belief in the possibilities and potential, you use innovation as a tool to drive long-lasting impact.
The next time you consider starting an innovation project, hosting an innovation event, or staffing up an innovation team, pause to consider why you’re doing it. Is the answer on the first list or the second?
After all, just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
The Horsemen are drawing nearer
On leather steeds they ride
They’ve come to take your life
On through the dead of night
With The Four Horsemen ride
Or choose your fate and die
– “The Four Horsemen” by Metallica
No scene from The Bible’s description of the Apocalypse has captured the popular imagination as much as that of the Four Horsemen. In Revelation 6, four beings are summoned, each riding out on a different colored horse – Conquest on a white horse, followed by War on a red horse, Famine on a black horse, and, finally, Death on a pale horse.
“The Four Horsemen” has been used as an analogy to describe everyone from Notre Dame football players to Supreme Court Justices, and referenced in books for everything from dealing with addiction to relationship counseling.
There are also Four Horsemen that foretell the end of innovation in a company
The White Horse: Short Term-ism
Like Conquest, Short Term-ism wears a crown and is hailed as a bringer of victory, prosperity, and health. After all, the only thing better than hitting your quarterly numbers is hitting them two quarters in a row. Then three, then four…
Short term-ism convinces you that the good times are here to stay if you just keep investing in today. Anxious to continue reaping immediate rewards and blind to the fact that it will end someday, executives dedicate more and more financial resources to short-term initiatives, reducing and ultimately killing long term investments
The Red Horse: Size
Size matters. Rulers fight wars to expand their empires. Executives spend, acquire, and merge to expand theirs.
The result is that an idea, business, or investment that was attractive 5 years ago needs to be 10x the size and 100x the certainty today. As companies get bigger the size of new products, business models, and revenue streams need to get bigger to move the needle.
I spoke to a CEO recently who lamented that he regularly shuts down ideas for new products because they’re “not big enough.” The irony, he told me, is that the new product that’s not big enough for today’s business would have doubled the size of the business 7 years ago.
But innovation often starts small, with a single spark, and needs to be incubated and nurtured over (a reasonable amount of) time. Companies that will only invest in big innovations that produce immediate results, don’t invest in innovation.
The Black Horse: Scarcity
When there’s not enough to go around, you have a famine. It can be food and water, or money and time. It can be real or perceived. It is always deadly.
We live and work in environments of scarce resources. Even the biggest companies don’t have infinite amounts of time, money, and people. That means that $1 spent on innovation (something new that creates value) is $1 NOT spent on the certainty of today’s business.
Trade-offs are a part of life. The problem is when trade-offs stop being seen as choices we make to achieve the best possible outcome, and start to become us-versus-them battles.
The result is corporate cage matches in which a small band of innovators must battle powerful business unit owners and influential functional heads for scarce resources. Spoiler alert, innovators rarely emerge victoriously.
The Pale Horse: Fear
Corporate innovators can survive short-term-ism, size requirements, and scarcity. They can’t survive fear.
Rarely is it their own fear – of failure, humiliation, or unemployment – that stops them. It is the fear that senior executives have of poor results, losing customers, no bonuses, and, yes, failure, humiliation, and unemployment.
Like Revelation’s depiction of Death as empty-handed and followed by Hades, its jaws open to receive Death’s victims, Innovation’s apocalyptic Pale Horse rider neither shows nor speaks of its fear and is usually followed by HR*, its arms open to welcome innovators into new roles in the core business.
Averting the Apocalypse
Unlike the Biblical Apocalypse, the Innovation Apocalypse can be stopped and even prevented.
To prevent the Innovation Apocalypse, embody the opposite mindsets and behaviors of the Four Horseman:
- Invest in the long-term and patiently wait for results
- Invest in things that start small but have the potential to grow
- Remember that growth isn’t about slicing up the same pie differently, it’s about making the entire pie bigger
- Confront fear and minimize real risk through experiments, pilots, and other small-scale tests
Of course, all of this is easier said than done.
The reality is that the Four Horsemen are already running rampant in most organizations. The only way to stop them from ushering in the Apocalypse is to confront them.
This takes guts.
It’s not easy or risk-free to challenge, however politely, a senior executives’ decisions that prioritize the short-term over the long-term, big business over small, preservation of resources over investment, and certainty over the unknown.
You may need to set-up a one-on-one conversation. You may need to pull someone in as an ally or messenger. You may need to talk to someone with the hopes that they can talk to the decision-maker.
But if you don’t speak up, the Horsemen will ride roughshod over your business and the Innovation Apocalypse will come.
* To be very clear, I am NOT equating HR to Hades. I love HR. They have a very important and very difficult job, and they are woefully under-appreciated. They also have the misfortune of being the people who show up immediately after an innovation initiate gets shut down with the task of picking up, reallocating, or separating the people left behind. Which, unfortunately, makes them a great element for this analogy.
Have you heard any of these sentences recently?
“We don’t have time”
“Our people don’t have the skills”
“We don’t have the budget”
“That’s not what we do”
I hear them all the time.
Sometimes they’re said when a company is starting to invest in building their innovation capabilities, sometimes during one-on-one stakeholder interviews when people feel freer to share their honest opinions, and sometimes well after investments have been made.
Every single time, they are the beginning of the end for innovation.
But one word that can change that.
“We don’t have time – yet.”
“Our people don’t have the skills – yet.”
“We don’t have the budget – yet.”
“That’s not what we do – yet.”
Yet creates space for change. It acknowledges that you’re in the middle of a journey, not the end. It encourages conversation.
“We don’t have time – yet.”
“OK, I know the team is busy and that what they’re working on is important. Let’s take a look at what people are working on and see if there are things we can delay or stop to create room for this.”
“Our people don’t have the skills – yet.”
“Understand, we’re all building new muscles when it comes to innovation. Good news, skills can be learned. Let’s talk about what we need to teach people and the best way to do that.”
“We don’t have the budget – yet.”
“I get it. Things are tight. We know this is a priority so let’s take a look at the budget and see if there’s a way to free up some cash. If there’s not, then we’ll go back to leadership and ask for guidance.”
“That’s not what we do – yet.”
“I know. Remember, we’re not doing this on a whim, we’re doing this because (fill in reason) and we have a right to do it because of (fill in past success, current strength or competitive advantage.”
You need to introduce the Yet.
It is very rare for people to add “yet” to their own statements. But you can.
When someone utters an innovation killing statement, simply respond with “Yet.” Maybe smile mischievously and then repeat their statement with “yet” added to the end.
After all, you’re not disagreeing with them, you’re simply qualifying what they’re saying. Their statement is true now but that doesn’t mean it will be true forever. By restating their assertion and adding “yet,” you’re inviting them to be part of the change, to take an active role in creating the new future state.
There’s a tremendous amount of research about the massive impact of this little word. It has helped underperforming students to overachieve and is closely associated with Dr. Carol Dweck’s research into fixed and learning mindsets.
The bottom line is that “yet” works.
Put Yet to work for you, your organization, and your efforts to innovate and grow.
“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 ***
Innovating – doing something different that creates value – is hard.
Innovating within a large organization can feel impossible.
In my work with corporate innovators, we always start with great optimism that this time will be different, this time innovation will stick and become the engine that drives lasting growth.
Within weeks, sometimes days, however, we start to be “loved to death,” a practice that takes one of two forms:
- The Protector who says, “That’s not how we do things and, if you insist on doing things that way, you’ll get shut down. Instead, do things this way”
- The Enthusiast who exclaims, “This is amazing! I would love to be involved. And you should share what you’re doing with this person, and definitely tap into this other person’s experience, and I know this third person will want to be involved, and you definitely must talk to….”
Neither mean harm. In fact, they’re trying to help, but if intrapreneurs aren’t careful, The Protector will edit their work into something that is neither different nor value creating, and The Enthusiast will suffocate them with meetings.
4 More Innovation Derailers
Being “loved to death,” is just one of ways I’ve seen corporate innovation efforts get derailed. Here are the others:
Performances for senior executives. Yes, it’s important to meet regularly with senior leaders to keep them apprised of progress, learnings, results, and next steps. But there’s a fine line between updating executives because they’re investors and conference room performances to show off shiny objects and excite executives. It takes time for innovation teams to prepare for meetings (one team I worked with spent over 100 hours preparing for a meeting) which is time they aren’t spending working, learning, and making progress.
Vanity metrics that that feel good. There are well-established metrics of success for existing businesses, but there is no commonly accepted set of innovation metrics because innovation evolves too rapidly and is pursued for countless reasons. As a result, Intrapreneurs are tempted to “game the system” and measure things like site visits and NPS that make executives feel good, but which don’t measure the viability of the innovation in the market.
Inviting everyone to everything. Transparent communication is important in all aspects of business, not just innovation. But just as established businesses choose when, how, and with whom to be transparent so too must corporate innovators. For example, one 100+ person accelerator invited everyone to every meeting and treated all comments as equally important. While this may look and feel egalitarian, it paralyzed teams because they had to respond to every comment, test every suggestion, and defend every decision.
Basing incentives only on the core business’ performance. Despite the mantra to “act like a VC,” it isn’t practical for large organizations to incentivize innovation teams the same way VCs incentivize their staffs or portfolio companies. But the other extreme – using the same incentives with both core business and innovation teams – is equally damaging because it results in the pursuit of “safe” projects and demoralizes intrapreneurs.
As common as these 5 innovation derailers are, they are also easily overcome:
QMWD meetings. Quarterly, Monthly, Weekly, Daily (QMWD) is an incredibly effective planning framework I often use with clients. Here’s how it works:
- Schedule one leadership meeting per Quarter and one per Month.
- Create templates so that teams can quickly fill in blanks, instead of creating presentations from scratch
- Monitor time spent preparing for meetings. If more than one Week (appx 40 hours) is spent preparing for a Quarterly meeting and/or more than one Day (8 hours) is spent preparing for a Monthly meeting, revise the templates, process, and expectations
Evolve what you measure when. According to research by CB Insights, the top two reasons start-ups fail is no market need and they ran out of cash. To avoid this fate, intrapreneurs should always measure desirability, feasibility, and viability and change shift of the three is most important based on where the innovation is in its lifecycle. For example, early innovation metrics should focus on whether there is a need and whether the innovation satisfies it (desirability). As confidence about desirability grows, metrics should shift to focus on the whether the innovation can be made and delivered in a financially attractive way (feasibility) and whether the customer is willing to pay (viability).
Use transparency to build support and let experience drive progress. Innovation teams need to share their learnings with other teams, and they need to be open to feedback and suggestions. Create a specific time and place for that to happen. For example, one of my clients hosts a monthly Lunch & Learn for teams to discuss projects. Outside of that dedicated time, however, empower innovation teams to move quickly because they are closest to the market.
Base incentives on the core business and innovation objectives. It’s important to foster a mentality that “we’re all in this together” amongst core and innovation teams, which is why rewarding intrapreneurs on some elements of the core business’ performance is essential. However, intrapreneurs are not working on the core business and, as a result, their incentives should also reflect what they are working on. Like innovation metrics, there’s no common standard for innovation incentives which is why I encourage my clients to base innovation teams’ incentives on their objectives for the year and to adjust, even fundamentally change, incentives as objectives shift.
Say “Thank You” and move on. As the Protector and the Enthusiast give advice and make connections, remember that they are trying to help, so write down what they say and respond with a genuine “thank you.” Then decide what will be helpful, do it, and ignore the rest. If they follow-up, have another conversation but odds are they won’t because their focus has shifted.
Lots of things derail innovation but, with a little planning and commitment, it’s possible to stay on track and do the “impossible” – innovate in a large organization.
Originally published as “Four Actions that Derail Innovation (And What To Do Instead)” on July 7, 2020 at Forbes.com