What “The Princess Bride” Teaches About the Corporate Innovation Experience

What “The Princess Bride” Teaches About the Corporate Innovation Experience

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post using quotes from “Moneyball” (the movie, not the book) to describe the experience of trying to innovate within a corporate setting.

It was great fun to write, I received tons of feedback, and had many fascinating conversations (plus a fact check on the year the Red Sox broke the Curse of the Bambino), so I started searching for other movies that inadvertently but accurately describe the journey of corporate innovators.

The Princess Bride

If you have not seen The Princess Bride, stop reading and immediately go watch it.  Seriously, there is nothing more important for you to do right now than to crawl out from the cultural rock you’ve been under since 1987 and watch this movie.

If you’re reading this, you’ve clearly watched the movie and know that it is packed with life lessons and quotable quotes.  It also captures the reality of innovation within the walls of large companies

The Beginning

“You keep using that word.  I don’t think it means what you think it means.” – Inigo Montoya

A company’s focus on Innovation usually begins the moment a senior executive, usually the CEO, declares it to be a key strategic priority and promises Wall Street analysts that significant investments will be made.

It then trickles down to business units and functions, with each subsequent layer told to “be more innovative” and “come up with more innovation.”

Then, one day, the responsibility for innovation lands in someone’s lap and stays there.  To be honest, it’s usually an exciting day for the person because they’ve been asking questions, suggesting ideas, and pushing for innovation for a long time, and now the powers that be have permitted them to do something about it.  They may even have been given a title and budget specific for innovation.

But “innovation” was never defined.

The CEO may think it is an entirely new business, something flashy and new that rivals anything coming out of Silicon Valley.

The Business Unit and Functional Heads may think it’s a new product or technology, something just different enough from the current business to be newsworthy but not so different that it changes how things are done.

And the new Innovation owner thinks it’s new ideas, lots of brainstorming sessions, and networking with entrepreneurs and startups.

Without alignment as to what “innovation” means and what it needs to deliver, the stage is set for misalignment, frustration, and ultimately failure.  Al because that word, “Innovation,” does not mean what you think it means.

The Middle

“We’ll never survive.” – Buttercup, the Princess Bride

“Nonsense, you’re only saying that because nobody ever has.” – Westley

Let’s imagine for a moment that a common definition and set of expectations for innovation is established and everyone up and down the corporate hierarchy is in agreement (this actually does happen, but it takes effort).

The innovation owner has a clear mandate and is hard at work building an innovation pipeline – they’re having lots of qualitative interviews to build customer empathy, they’re facilitating brainstorming sessions to get ideas, they’re building prototypes to get customer feedback.  Most importantly, they’re sharing their work with anyone who will listen, asking for feedback, and building supporters and champions.

And then, the chorus begins.

“This will never work”

“You’ll never get approval for that”

“If we do that, we’ll lose customers”

“If you do that, you’ll be fired.”

In these moments, the dark seeds of doubt are planted.  The innovation owner must dig deep, reminding themselves that people are only saying those things because it hasn’t worked yet, no one got approval yet, customers haven’t yet weighed in, and you haven’t tried to do that yet.

After all, just because something has never been done, doesn’t mean that it can’t be done.

The End

“Thank you so much for bringing up such a painful subject.  While you’re at it, why don’t you give me a nice paper cut and pour lemon juice on it.” – Buttercup, the Princess Bride

Let’s be honest, most corporate innovation efforts don’t result in the world-changing, life-affirming successes we hop for. Innovators are, by nature and necessity, an optimistic bunch so when things don’t work out as we hope, it hurts. It hurts as much as a paper cut with lemon juice poured on it.

But there is one truth that cuts across all attempts at corporate innovation, no matter whether the journey ends with wild success in the form of massive business growth, happy success in the form of new products and revenue streams, satisfying success in the form of improvements and greater efficiencies, or bitter disappointment because nothing changes and everyone goes on to old or new jobs.

“I supposed you think you’re brave, don’t you?” – Vizzini

“Only compared to some.”Buttercup, the Princess Bride

Those who took on the work and responsibility of innovation are brave.

Not only compared to some but compared to most. 

It takes guts to try something new.  To ask questions.  To challenge the status quo.  To continue seeking a yes amongst a thousand no’s. To put your reputation, your bonus, and maybe even your job on the line.

And that’s what corporate innovators need to remember – that whatever happens, they were brave.  They worked hard, they battled the odds, they did make change happen.  Even if it was only how they see and understand the world.  Even if it only to get smarter and stronger and prepare for the next time they are called upon to drive change.

Because in that moment, innovators must be ready to say “As you wish.”

The Trap of Innovation Metrics (and How to Avoid It)

The Trap of Innovation Metrics (and How to Avoid It)

Of all the facets of innovation, innovation metrics may be the most requested, studied, and debated.

This is not surprising given that companies need to justify the billions of dollars they spend every year on “innovation” and the best way to do that is through a sound set of metrics with proven predictive power and relevant benchmarks.

However, despite the need, and decades of work to address it, a satisfying answer to “what innovation metrics should we use?” is as elusive as ever.

The key word there is “satisfying”

Innovation metrics exist.  There are probably hundreds of them.

Innovation metrics are in use. Maybe even at your company.

But one universal set of metrics with proven predictive power and relevant benchmarks?  Nope, that doesn’t exist.

And it shouldn’t exist.

What innovation is, why it is pursued, and the investment of resources and time required varies from industry to industry and company to company.  So, it makes no sense to apply a standard set of metrics to a custom approach and activity.

The trap of “satisfying” metrics

“What gets measured gets managed” is a trap (and also not true and Peter Drucker never said it).

It’s a trap because, as noted by monetary theorist Charles Goodhart noted, “Any statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes.”

Or as us common folk (and anthropologist Marilyn Strathern) say, “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”

It is not satisfying when ideas become cobras

Although Goodhart’s Law was first articulated in 1975, it’s been in action for centuries.  Consider the story of the British government’s bounty on cobras back when India was still a colony – to reduce the cobra population, the British government offered to pay people for every dead cobra they brought in.  The money was good and eventually, people started raising cobras for the sole purpose of killing them to collect the county. 

This is exactly what happens with most innovation metrics.

Because companies are so keen to measure and track progress, they set metrics they can measure.  Those measurable metrics quickly become targets.

For example, one of my clients was eager to “fill their innovation funnel” and so they set a metric for the number of new ideas submitted each quarter.  It didn’t take long before the innovation team spent most of the last day of each quarter frantically submitting “new ideas” so that they could hit the target. 

The next day, they would go into the system and reject all the frantically submitted ideas because the ideas didn’t meet established qualitative criteria for strategic fit, scalability, or business potential.

At the end of the year, management was dumbfounded – despite getting thousands of ideas, the team had yet to pilot an idea, let alone launch a new business and generate revenue. 

Metrics aren’t satisfying if they aren’t effective in achieving your ultimate goal

Was killing lots of cobras Britain’s ultimate goal?  No.

They wanted to decrease the cobra population.

But killing cobras was a key step in decreasing the population and it was easier and faster to measure and track the number of cobras killed.

Was getting lots of ideas my client’s ultimate goal?  No.

They needed to increase revenue by 50% in the next 5 years.

But getting ideas was a key step in creating a new stream of revenue and it was easier and faster to measure and track the number of ideas submitted.

How to Create Effective Innovation Metrics

State the ONE Why. 

This is the hardest part of setting metrics because there are lots of reasons to pursue innovation.  But we have to remember that innovation is a means to an end and effective metrics focus on the end, not the means.

I like to use the 5 Whys to get to the ultimate goal.  Here’s a rough approximation (with completely made-up numbers) of the conversation I had with the client mentioned above:

  • ME: Why do you want # of new ideas in the funnel each quarter?
  • Client: Because we need that many to get 4 new products to pilot
  • Me: Why do you need to pilot 4 new products?
  • Client: Because we have a 50% pilot success rate
  • Me: OK, so you need to launch 2 new products.  Why two?
  • Client: Because our new products generate $100M in Yr 1 revenue
  • Me: Why do you need $200M in new revenue each year?
  • Client: Because we have a $1B gap between what we promised to shareholders and what we’re on track to deliver in 5 years

Their ultimate goal was to close a $1B revenue gap in 5 years, not generate # new ideas per year. 

Set interim milestones.

Achieving an ultimate goal takes years of hard work and you may need to pivot or readjust expectations along the way.  For that reason, it’s important to set interim milestones, not as decision points but as markers for when to pull your head out of the day-to-day details and assess whether or not you are on track and, if not, what you need to change.

Using the same client as an example, we could have decided that $1B in new revenue in 5 years meant that we needed to generate $200M in new revenue every year.  But, as we talked through things, we realized that it would take time to fill the innovation funnel AND build the organizational capability to develop, test, and launch new products.  As a result, we should set revenue goals that increased each year, reflecting the organization’s increasing innovation effectiveness.

Explore the MANY Hows.

Innovation may be one way to achieve your ultimate goal but there are lots of others and it’s important to stay open to all of them.

For my client, we quickly realized that it wasn’t reasonable to rely solely on organic innovation to close the $1B revenue gap.  Instead, we needed to explore multiple approaches from organic innovation to M&A and everything in between.

In closing…

It’s easy to fall into the trap of “satisfying” metrics that measure activity.

It’s a bit harder to evade the trap by identifying effective metrics that measure progress to an ultimate goal.

But, I can assure you, achieving that ultimate goal is way beyond satisfying.

10 Times When Innovation is NOT The Answer

10 Times When Innovation is NOT The Answer

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:
  1. Your current business is declining
  2. You need immediate results
  3. You want to play it safe and follow rather than lead
  4. You’re afraid of losing customers
  5. You’re afraid of falling behind the competition
  6. You’re getting pressure from shareholders
  7. You want to hang out with famous CEOs/be on TV and the cover of magazines
  8. You read an article/book/had a conversation and it doesn’t seem that hard
  9. You want to do something fun/different/exciting/noteworthy
  10. You can

Luckily, there is a corresponding list of times when Innovation is the answer.

DO innovate when:
  1. Your current business is solid
  2. You need a pipeline to deliver new revenue now AND in 3, 5, 10 years
  3. You are willing to take smart risks so you can lead instead of follow
  4. You want to better serve your customers
  5. You are confident in the business fundamentals and its future potential
  6. You believe in investing and building for the long-term
  7. You care about the long-term health of the business and your people
  8. You are committed to learning and building an organizational capability
  9. You are willing to work hard for a long time to do the impossible
  10. 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.
Why Falling in Love with Your Ideas Kills Innovation

Why Falling in Love with Your Ideas Kills Innovation

“Fall in the love the problem, not the solution.”

Although not as well-known as other innovation mantras like “Fail Fast” and “See around corners,” this mantra is, in my experience, truer than any of them.  It is also harder to follow.

It’s hard to fall in love with a problem.

By the time most of us enter the workforce, we are Do-ers.  Our bosses train us to bring solutions, not problems.  Our employers reward us for showing initiative, taking action, and resolving issues.  We celebrate when we find the answer, crack the case, and drive the change.

We have stopped being Questioners, Wonderers, and Explorers.  We stopped asking “Why?” and “What if?” and “Why not.”  We stopped wondering why or where or when or how things might be or once were or could be.  We stopped exploring the unknown, the uncertain, and the unexplained.

Falling in love with a problem requires us to ask why it exists and why it hasn’t been solved yet.  It requires us to wonder about why things that look like solutions aren’t.  It requires us to explore and look for root causes and to welcome surprises.

Falling in love with a solution is what we are trained to do.

But falling in love with a solution, not the problem it solves, locks us into a course of action that is often all or nothing. 

Falling in love with the problem is what we need to do.

Falling in love with a problem gives us a place of certainty to return to.  The problem is evidence of market opportunity, we simply need to find the solution that unlocks it. 

Consider these 3 examples:

An R&D team develops a breakthrough new technology but producing it at scale would make it cost 10x the current solution.

  • Fall in love with the Solution: Management shuts down the project due to lack of a viable business
  • Fall in love with the Problem: The team updates management that the new technology is not economically viable and asks for an additional 3 months and $100,000 to develop a different solution.  Management agrees.

A product team develops a new product, complete with new branding, positioning, and Direct to Consumer go to market strategy. Sales expresses concern that existing retail customers will view this as a threat.

  • Fall in love with the Solution: Management cancels the project launch out of fear that retailers will retaliate by discontinuing all of the manufacturer’s products and heavily promoting competitors’ brands.
  • Fall in love with the Problem: The team revisits the Go to Market strategy, questioning the importance of Direct to Consumer in solving the problem. The team realizes that, while it is important, it does not need to be the only distribution channel at launch, ultimately recommending that it be used to seed the market before distribution through traditional retailers.  Sales positions pre-launch DTC as a net benefit for retailers and management approves the launch.

An innovation team develops a category-creating product that receives overwhelming acceptance in concept tests and receives top scores when evaluated against its nearest competitors.  However, when launched into test markets, it fails miserably.

  • Fall in love with the Solution – Option 1: Management ends the target markets and cancels the project
  • Fall in love with the Solution – Option 2: Management continues to make incremental changes to the product, its positioning and marketing, and its pricing, ultimately spending millions over multiple years with little to no change in product adoption.
  • Fall in love with the Problem – Team talks to their target consumers, including the people who gave the product high marks in concept tests, and learns that the problem the product solves isn’t a terribly painful or important problem and, as a result, consumers aren’t willing to spend money or change behavior to adopt a better solution.  The team shelves the category-creating product to focus on creating a new solution to the real problem.
Did you see the pattern there?

When you fall in love with the solution and the solution fails, the project stops.

When you fall in love with the problem and the solution fails, you circle back to the problem and try again.

And if anyone would know the importance of being able to circle back, it’s the man credited with coining the “Fall in love with the problem, not the solution” mantra – Uri Levine.  The founder of Waze.

Why Companies Need Salmon Ladders to Achieve Their Growth Goals

Why Companies Need Salmon Ladders to Achieve Their Growth Goals

“You are a salmon.”

This was not the career advice I hoped for.

After months of tests, quizzes, career counseling sessions, and peer support groups, I was sitting in the expansive wood-paneled office of Harvard Business School’s Head of Career Services, eagerly anticipating learning what my ideal career would be.  I did not expect to be told that I was a fish.

“You are only happy when you are rebelling against something.  You are a salmon.  Whatever you choose to do, you must swim upstream.”

This did not sound like a recipe for the peaceful, easy, frictionless career that I envisioned.  This sounded like a career of frustration, struggle, and just generally being annoyed most of the time. 

It was 100% accurate.

Innovators are salmon

Quick tutorial on salmon – they hatch in freshwater, swim out to the ocean and live in the saltwater before returning to freshwater to spawn and die (assuming the don’t get caught by a bear or fisherman first).

Quick tutorial on innovators – they are born (like everyone else) with creativity and a sense of unlimited possibility, they go out into the world and face the sting of reality before returning to their natural creative state to ask questions, challenge the status quo, drive growth, and (like everyone else) die.

Swimming upstream is exhausting for fish and for people.  That’s why most don’t do it.  That’s why most fish and people make the sensible choice to go with the flow, work within the system, and find better ways to do the same things.

But innovators, like salmon, instinctively know that to create, they must follow a different and much harder path.  Instead of going with the flow, they must question the status quo.  Instead of finding a better way to do the same things, they question whether those things even need to be done and create new ways to do new things.

Companies recognize that they need innovators.  They need people who think differently and aren’t afraid to take smart risks because these are the people that will create new revenue streams and drive companies’ long-term growth.  But, like the river, the company can’t change how it operates.

Companies need salmon ladders

Quick tutorial on salmon ladders – they are structures on or around natural barriers like waterfalls and dams, that have a high enough water velocity to attract the fish but not so much as to exhaust them, and often have very low steps that the salmon can leap up to get to their destination

Quick tutorial on innovation processes – they are structures separate from companies’ existing processes (and the barriers that often slow progress), that allow enough freedom for creativity and experimentation but not so much as to put the company at serious risk, and often have steps or stages that innovators and their projects must leap up in order to launch a scalable business.

Salmon ladders help salmon progress more rapidly and efficiently, decreasing the odds that they die from exhaustion before reaching their destination.  Innovation processes help innovators progress ideas more rapidly and efficiently through an organization, decreasing the odds that they die (or quit, or get fired) before reaching their destination.

How to build a salmon ladder for innovators

Google “innovation process” and you will get 1.8 BILLION results in 0.59 seconds. That’s because there is no one magic innovation process that works for everyone. 

But as varied as effective innovation processes are, they share common characteristics.

  1. People over process.  If you announce the implementation of a new process, send out a user manual, and then walk away, the process will fail.  If you involve people in designing and pressure testing the process, support them in the first 6-12 months of use, and they experience the value of the process for themselves, the process will succeed.
  2. Goals are good.  Constraints are better.  Innovation is an investment, and the company expects a return on that investment.  Be clear about those expectations from the start.  Innovation is not “anything goes!”  Be clear about what the company is and is not willing to support before your start.
  3. Guidance, not direction.   Innovation is filled with known unknowns and unknown unknowns and, for that reason, the path to launch isn’t a straight line.  But it also can’t be an infinite loop.  Innovation processes should set guardrails for the work to be done but shouldn’t be overly prescriptive.
  4. Insights, not information.  Innovation processes should enable learning and encourage its sharing.  Building in time for teams to reflect on their experience and write down their insights is critical for continued growth.  Weighing the team down with detailed analyses, complicated templates, and constant update presentations doesn’t enable and encourage learning, it slows it down.
  5. Celebrate milestones, not just launches.  More innovation projects will be stopped than will be launched.  The stopped projects aren’t failures, they’re lessons learned and steppingstones to the next big launch.  Celebrating the milestones that projects achieve, even the milestone of being stopped, will keep innovators energized and swimming upstream far longer than celebrating only the launches.

Innovators do the hard work of swimming upstream. 
Help them out by building a process to guide and propel them.

After all, as one of my favorite poems points out,

If you move with the crowd, you’ll get no further than the crowd

Simply swimming with the tide leaves you nowhere.

So if you believe in something that’s good, honest, and bright – stand up for it.

Maybe your peers will get smart and drift your way

The Four Horsemen of the Innovation Apocalypse

The Four Horsemen of the Innovation Apocalypse

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.