The ones that don’t work spend their time trying to execute big, material challenges at enterprise-scale. The rest limp along doing boring, incremental innovation at volume.
Now, I don’t for a moment suggest that big challenges aren’t worthy of attention, or that innovators shouldn’t be thinking about them.
But I do know this: they require a senior leader who’s going to act as a hero to make them work.
Heroes in organisations are those that go above and beyond the call of duty to make things happen. They put themselves out there, often taking significant personal risk to drive change forward. They’re called heroes because of this risk: if whatever-it-is-works they get the rewards, but there’s a very real chance they’ll get fired if they don’t.
When you hear innovation experts saying a “critical success factor is senior executive support”, what they really mean is you’re dead unless you’ve found yourself a senior executive who’s going to engage in hero behaviour.
At least, that’s true for radical innovations in the enterprise.
Here’s something else that true: even if you find a senior leader who’ll put their career on the line for your innovation once, what is the chance they’ll do it regularly enough you can get a programme to work long term?
Close to zero.
That’s why I say most innovation programmes don’t work. Traditionally structured ones, that is.
We need a way to do without senior level heroes. And that means that certain things have to change about the way we do innovation.
I think the future is complete devolution of the innovation problem. Let innovation happen at the edge of organistions, because most people have great ideas and want to make a real difference in their work.
Today’s innovation systems already let this happen, even if they’re only suggestion boxes. Anyone can contribute ideas, and if you’re using a decent tool, anyone can review ideas and help decide which are important.
What doesn’t happen often, is empowering the edge to actually commit resources to making things happen. Leaders will trust their people to generate ideas, but to actually turn them into something? No, that’s got to be the sole province of people who have authority.
If you trust a crowd at the edge to help you select an idea, though, what’s the big leap to letting them commit the resources to build what-ever-it is?
Some organistions I’ve been involved with recently are experimenting in this area already. They are companies who’ve realized that a little relaxation of centralized command-and-control can magnify the bandwidth to do new things. It is a bandwidth problem, as much as anything else, when you rely on senior heroes.
When you let the edge commit resources – say to making a prototype – you advance the innovation agenda in an exponential fashion. You need just that little bit less hero-power to move things forward.
You can imagine the amount of innovation you’d get done if you didn’t need any hero-power.
I don’t know anyone that’s taken the step of completely devolving the innovation problem to the edge, though. There’s still governance, trust and control issues that need resolution culturally, first.
But, this will be the next great leap in innovation management, I think. Jumping from a commitment to ideas at the edge, to execution at the edge as well. I rather think, when it does happen, this will cause the success rate of innovation programmes in organisations to leap as well.