Innovation Abuse – the new corporate evil to watch out for.

The word “innovation” is blatantly abused by companies, especially by veterans in the Tech industry who struggle to keep up with smarter competition from startups. For a moment, consider all the ideas that get approved, the huge funding that gets sanctioned, and the large teams that get commissioned under the “Innovation” umbrella.  It’s appalling, to say the least. Over a 100 tech startups can be seed-funded with those resources, and yet very little comes out of these ‘Let’s innovate’ projects.

Further, any company-wide innovation awards add fuel to the continual abuse of real innovation. “We won the award!” so we must be doing something great is the signal that is sent to the team. Sometimes, the award encourages the thought – “What should we do to we win the award again?” All this drama begs the question – who are you innovating for? Is there a real world problem that begs to be solved which has wide implication on the company or on the society? Is this team sustainable beyond awards? Often more funds for innovation imply more abuse, although there should not be a correlation. Richer companies don’t have to spend more if they choose not to.

A simple checklist for early detection of innovation abuse can help.

1. Leadership – Who’s leading this effort? Does this person have a track record of building something from scratch, or loves products and problems, or has started a company, or worked for a startup? Can he make people think or just manage them? Are his ambitions beyond the corporate ladder? Typically company’s reserve their best people for products that make money today, and put under-performers on innovative projects. Innovation does not thrive on managers, but on thinkers and hustlers.

2. Alignment – Are the goals aligned to something the top management cares about – topline, bottomline? Does the management respect that each domain needs people who bring that DNA? One needs people who think ‘mobile first’ to build something exciting on mobile, and that can’t happen by putting your best team of Web managers on the job.

3. Intention – What’s different about how this team will operate? Have the corporate processes, hierarchy, location, office environment, rules, or culture been tweaked or relaxed where necessary to allow freedom to move fast and create new paradigms?

4. Trust – Has the company shown any leap of faith in bringing in new people, or trusting younger folks and reducing managers, or in involving mentors from the outside world?  Trust allows fresh ideas as well as the ability to set goals that are outside facing and realistic.

5. Progress – How is progress measured? Quarterly or annual planning does not help. First, the team needs to search for a solution and ensure the innovation has a viable future. The burden of appraisal processes, promotion-linked goals, and fishing for internal praise may lead to building something that only looks great inside the company walls.

6. Ownership – Does anyone in the team echo the ‘voice of capital’ i.e. treats the budget like his own money? Does anyone echo the ‘voice of the future’ of this company, and not his own limited future at the company? Do the team leaders jump at every opportunity to learn or sell or engage with the ecosystem or do they resort to “scheduling meetings” that will probably happen weeks later?

Try this checklist with a well-funded corporate innovation group – if they fail more than half the questions on this list, they’re probably wasting time and money, and often surviving because someone’s ego is not willing to accept reality.

One comment

  1. A couple of points I’d like to add from my own experiences,

    (Leadership) – can a crisis be precipitated? For instance, booking a demo booth in a trade show to ‘harden’ or bring realism to a deadline. Teams that work with deadlines that are internally set don’t have the same bite as a team working around a real customer, with a realistic promise of success or failure.

    (Ownership) – is the team made to stretch, so that there is a chance that they might fail? This is a subtle but often overlooked point in teams where the management is the last line of authority. For instance, a team might ‘succeed’ in the eyes of the management, but fail in the market. In this case, the team is invisibly shielded as they believe that ‘management’ drove the design.


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