Innovation backlash

One of the interesting things about the group I run at the DWP is that we’re accountable for both innovation and strategy.

This, you might imagine, ought to be a nirvana that anyone who cares about innovation would dream about. Practically speaking, however, it introduces a few issues that you don’t expect.

Consider this scenario. You use the tools of innovation to create a pile of new thinking that results in new prototypes or experiments getting built. Everyone is excited, and loves the new approach. New things start happening, so everyone declares the exercise a success.

In the meantime, however, the approved and mandated strategy that was previously being followed gets changed in subtle, but unexpected ways. For those whose responsibility it was to implement the strategy, this is annoying at best. At worst, it represents a threat to them that must be taken out as soon as possible.

Now, I know immediately that everyone will start screaming that strategies must be flexible to new thinking and new goals, and of course I agree with that.

But the situation is illustrative of something that you always see when you send an innovation team into the wild: the new ideas getting created threaten someone’s interests, no matter how well the innovation team influences those around it.

You get a backlash that is as inevitable as it is hard to manage.

In fact, I’m not certain it is possible to manage it. If you’re about changing the status quo and you don’t ruffle some feathers, it is surely inescapable that you’re not really changing anything at all.

My conclusion is that you have to invest your innovators with sufficient political clout that they can – in their own right – protect themselves from the backlash when it happens. If the clout is invested via proximity to a powerful senior figure, then so much the better

Talking with innovators across sectors, I’ve found there are some common signs that innovators haven’t got the clout they need to do stuff.

You know they have no clout when people around them say “the innovation team don’t do anything”. Clearly, what’s happened is that the innovators know they can’t withstand the backlash, so they do busy-busy little projects that don’t ruffle any feathers.

You know the innovators have no clout when things that are ordinarily business-as-usual start being called" “innovation”. I’ve talked to an innovation group that managed to get RSA tokens deployed for security purposes. Ramping up security using off-the-shelf-products is not innovation. But the innovators, fearing the backlash, go where things are safe, and the need for change is self-evident. Tokens are a good example of going where things are safe.

The innovators have no clout when their diaries don’t have meetings with senior people. They know they can’t “deliver” (they are scared the backlash will take out their projects) so they only commit to things which are small enough not to get noticed. Of course, being small, they are also not worthy of the attention of senior folk, so no meetings get set up.

But here is the number one thing that tells you your innovators have no clout: talk with them about innovation, and they’ll tell you how their organisations aren’t innovative. No matter that they are in place to make their organisations innovative. No matter that all their training and professional experience suggests the raw materials they need are all around them. They give you an excuse instead. They’ve been hit one too many times by a backlash for which they had no defence.

There is a downside to giving innovators clout, of course. The downside is they then have the ability to disrupt strategy and “get distracting”. My own view, though, is that a strategy that doesn’t know how to deal with the new stuff without falling apart isn’t very much use anyway. It’ll only be current in the short term.

Try this: give your innovators their head and protect them from harm. You’ll be surprised as the results you get.

10 Responses to“Innovation backlash”

  1. November 16, 2009 at 10:22 am #

    A good reason to ensure that very senior management champions the cause (at least more senior than those potentially ruffled feathered characters)

  2. BB
    November 16, 2009 at 1:51 pm #

    Best post for a while, I want to hear about specific innovations at the DWP though.

  3. Ken Maier
    November 17, 2009 at 2:21 am #

    Great post- gets to the " Heart of the Artichoke".. so to speak.
    Ironic that the one of the top priorities for CEOs (according to BCG Innovation Survey 2009) is Innovation and that the technology that promotes and supports the “democratization” of Innovation is easily available …. yet a very small percentage of companies have implemented such solutions.
    I guess this makes me wonder if in fact “reflective resistance” to change in corporate culture and “defending ones turf” are indeed the ultimate barriers to companies being more innovative.
    Seems that a number of Innovation” thought leaders”( including many of the leading strategy and consulting firms) are promoting their innovation practice capabilities with white papers, surveys, and methodologies – yet very few have spoken to the cultural change required in order to truly democratize the innovation process nor have done same within their own organizations.

    • November 5, 2011 at 5:20 pm #

      I was so confused about what to buy, but this makes it understadbnlae.

  4. November 17, 2009 at 4:14 am #

    You'll be interested to hear that we're replicating your own innovation market here though, and it is live from yesterday. As to the other things that are going on, why don't you come and visit and I'll show you.

  5. November 17, 2009 at 4:20 am #

    The turf defence problem is the one that's the biggest I think for innovators. Tools, whether they be intellectual or actual, only give you the means, not the influence….. you need both I suspect to make any difference at all.
    It is always surprising to me when noone protects the innovators from backlash. What do they think will happen? That magically great new products will roll out the door when the people responsible know they'll get beaten up for trying?

  6. November 17, 2009 at 4:33 pm #

    Great post James.
    You might have posted previously about it but I'd be interested in hearing more about the "the tools of innovation…".
    If you have posted previously can you point me in the right direction?

  7. Sid
    November 18, 2009 at 6:50 am #

    Agree with you completely, but i guess sometimes it's a question of who should ultimately be responsible for the innovation agenda within an org becasue sometimes even senior executives dont have the required clout, so would it best for this person to be the CEO hinself/herself?

  8. November 26, 2009 at 4:34 am #

    I completely agree that the biggest barrier to successful innovation is cultural; people trying to defend their turf. As you mention in your post, introducing a different way of working will always threaten someone’s interests. And often, the bigger the change, the more powerful the people whose interests are being threatened.
    As an enterprise software company, that's something we see with our clients. An initial pilot will achieve great results. Resistance then sometimes appears with a broader production rollout, at which point the sponsor discovers they don't have enough clout to overcome it. In my experience, the problem is particularly acute when trying to deploy solutions across multiple business units.
    Do you have any thoughts about effective ways for bedding down improvement initiatives that cross functions?
    Great post, BTW!

  9. November 26, 2009 at 7:33 am #

    So I have, today, posted a new item on getting clout.
    For a cross-function improvement, I think the answer is you need enough clout to actually be allowed to cross functions. That is, of course, very, very difficult when you're a vendor. Do you have a senior leader who is supporting you? One who runs *both* functions?

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