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Why Your Company Keeps Killing Big Ideas

… and what you can do about it

 

As seen on Forbes

Just after speaking at a conference last week, I was approached by a gentleman who introduced himself as a “newly minted and incredibly afraid chief innovation officer.” He had started as many of us do, with big ideas about how to shake up the company but had been snubbed at every turn. Now, even his boss was looking the other way when he saw him coming. He asked me, in essence, “What gives?”

I had to tell him it was probably his fault. He, maybe like you, was trying to rev up his company in the wrong way.

When it comes to innovation, the temptation for many of us is to come up with a big idea, call a meeting, engage our jazz hands, and inspire those around us to change the world.

With all due respect to your mad inspiration skills, this strategy will most likely fail. Inventors start with ideas (think: Snuggies) and then look for people who need them. Innovators start with needs (think: How to help the elderly age at home) and then look for ideas to solve them.

The greatest companies and the greatest innovators get that formula right—every…single…time. As it turned out, that newly minted and incredibly afraid CIO began every innovation effort with an idea and not a need—and that task is much more difficult. Inventors have to search for potential customers. Innovators know who their potential customers are: They are the people (like the elderly in our example above) who have a need (“How will I be able to age at home?”).

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But even in companies that start in the right place—companies that have become great at their ability to identify significant unmet needs—many of the ideas they come up with to fill those needs still fail. Why? Here are a few reasons that may sound familiar:

1) Leaders are pressed by “the tyranny of the urgent.” The overwhelming pressures of day-to-day business prevent people from having the time or mental capacity to think about the implications of the future. Add to this quarterly stock reports and you have the perfect storm for status quo and working on the important, not the essential.

2) Closely related to number one is lack of ownership and alignment. If the new idea has no owner, or it’s owned by a committee that’s not aligned, there’s no way to make it move through the system safely. Ideas are like children. They need parents to protect them, encourage them, challenge them…until they are ready to face life, and the market, on their own.

3) Cultural antibodies conspire to kill the best ideas. Sometimes this comes as a direct attack born out of legal or compliance or some other department that claims the idea can’t be done. More often, it is a stealth attack—by a long-term employee who simply doesn’t know HOW to create the new product, service or business model that you are promoting—so subtly but intentionally, the initiative gets delayed, pared down or deprioritized until it slowly fades away.

So how do you overcome these three problems?

Let me give you three proven ideas.

Infuse Objectivity

Show me a company that is suddenly innovative and I’ll show you one that has imported thinking from a completely different industry. I like to say that “you can’t read the label when you are sitting inside the jar.” Meaning, our expertise gets in the way of seeing possibility; we know what works; how we’ve always done business; what the boss will approve; what we can afford…. If your company is facing an inflection point, import new perspective—leaders adept at identifying consumer or customer needs, and solving for them, who are not encumbered with industry dos and don’ts.

Celebrate Your Losers

I know, I know…this just doesn’t sound like good business. But it IS if you think about failure as rapidly prototyping. That’s one thing entrepreneurs do more effectively than bureaucracies. The irony is that they actually do it to SAVE money. Their desire is to make as many cheap mistakes as possible before launching their ideas. Quickly failing—and being happy about it—is a hallmark of an innovative business.

Pick Your Captains Wisely

I’ve written a lot about how to create, populate and balance an innovation portfolio. What many companies miss is that each of the quadrants takes a different mindset and level of experience to run. Each one needs a different kind of team captain. Just like you want a bond fund expert running the conservative part of your financial portfolio, you’re looking for a deeply experienced industry expert to manage your evolutionary innovation projects. But when it comes to revolutionary projects in your portfolio, you want someone who knows how to bend, break and rewrite the rules. Too many companies make the mistake of having one person manage all of their innovation; conservative and aggressive projects alike. The result? The company defaults to what feels safe—and nothing innovative is produced.

I am not sure these three strategies would have helped the guy I met at the conference. It turns out he was promoted from within, had no budget, was asked to manage all of the company’s innovation efforts, and worked in an incredibly conservative industry.

But for the rest of us, there’s hope.

Follow me on Twitter @theideamonkey or read my Forbes blog here.

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