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How To Prepare Your Organization For Innovation

2018 October 3
by Greg Satell

In 1919, Mahatma Gandhi initiated a campaign of civil disobedience, including the sale of banned literature, fasting, prayer and work stoppages, to protest the oppressive Rowlatt Acts the British had recently passed. These were an immediate success, but soon turned disastrous and ultimately ended with the massacre at Amritsar.

He would later call this his Himalayan miscalculation. “I realized that before a people could be fit for offering civil disobedience, they should thoroughly understand its deeper implications,” he would later write in his autobiography. The same can be said for innovation. Before you embark on a game changing initiative, your organization needs to be prepared for it.

In a recent article for Harvard Business Review, columnist Scott Kirsner pointed to a survey of 270 corporate leaders that found that the most significant obstacles to innovation are not things like budget, skill sets or CEO support, but politics and culture. Those are pervasive issues and can’t be solved overnight, but they can be overcome. Here are 4 things you can do:

1. Focus On Your Mission More Than Your Metrics

It’s long been fashionable to say that “you manage what you measure.” Usually the sentiment is voiced to advocate for a metrics based-approach to management, but clearly the opposite is also true. It’s hard to manage what you don’t — or can’t — measure. This is often referred to as availability bias, we tend to act on the information that is most accessible, rather than what’s most important.

That’s why it’s crucial to manage for mission, not for metrics. Reducing success to performance against a limited number of objective numbers often leads to unintended consequences, because numbers never tell the whole story. You can, off course, expand the number of metrics that you use, but eventually you’ll find that that more numbers leads to more confusion.

One company that exemplifies a mission-based approach is Amazon. Surely, Amazon does not shy away from measurement, but numbers are secondary to its fanatical focus on the customer. A new project at Amazon does not start with a quantitative analysis, but with a backward-looking press release that imagines the impact on the customer. The numbers come later.

Every enterprise is defined by the problems it seeks to solve. That’s what gives it meaning and helps to determine what you measure, but measurement alone cannot fully capture the essence of a mission. If why you do what you do isn’t front and center, what you do will eventually lose relevance.

2. Empower Exploration And Experimentation

The purpose of innovation in an organization is to improve performance, whether that is to increase revenues and profits, to expand and deepen impact or to empower key stakeholders. Every enterprise defines its own mission and how it measures success.

There are, simply put, three ways you can innovate. You can get better at what you already do, apply what you are already good at to a different market or context or figure out a completely new problem to solve. These are not in any way mutually exclusive and can often reinforce each other. The best innovators pursue all three.

Still, because it provides little in the way of immediate benefits, it is the last one, exploring new problems, that is often neglected. Every organization can find ways to improve and can see opportunities is adjacent markets. Yet to effectively explore you must venture out into the unknown, often without tangible metrics for success or a clear timeline for achieving it. That’s much harder.

Yet make no mistake, innovation needs exploration. If you don’t explore, you won’t discover. If you don’t discover you won’t invent and if you don’t invent you will be disrupted eventually. It’s just a matter of time.

3. Connect Your Silos

It’s become fashionable to talk about “breaking down silos. The problem with that type of thinking is that when you reorganize to break down one kind of silo, you inevitably create others. If, for example, your company is organized around functional groups, then you will get poor collaboration around products. But when you reorganize to focus on product groups, you get the same problem within functions.

Besides, silos are not only inevitable, but important and useful. To understand why, think of a Navy SEAL team. To perform at an elite level, the team needs to build incredibly strong bonds of trust and loyalty among its members. That inevitably makes it a silo, but if it wasn’t it would lose its edge.

So instead of trying to break down silos, we need to connect them. A Navy SEAL can maintain strong, trustful bonds with those on his team and still have trustful relationships with, say, a communications officer or an intelligence analyst. Network science shows that it takes relatively few of these seemingly random “weak ties” to thoroughly connect even massive organizations.

There are a number of ways to network your organization. Internal training programs and offsites can help build crucial links between disparate divisional and functional areas. Designating respected executives to act as liaisons can also be an effective strategy.

4. Adopt A “Grand Challenge” Mindset

All too often, innovation is confused with agility. We’re told to “adapt or die” and encouraged to “move fast and break things.” But the most important innovations take time. Einstein spent ten years on special relativity and then another ten on general relativity. To solve tough, fundamental problems, we have to be able to commit to solving a grand challenge for the long haul.

“A successful grand challenge is one that people, even experts in the field, regard as an epiphany and changes assumptions about what’s possible,” Bernard Meyerson, IBM’s Chief Innovation Officer, told me. That’s what shifts paradigms and creates completely new markets.

The reason that most businesses don’t pursue grand challenges isn’t for lack of money, sustained long-term efforts are not expensive, but for lack of vision. Immediate competitive pressures tend to monopolize our time and focus. We know on some level that we need to prepare for the future and plan to get to it… sometime, but never do.

The truth is that everyone gets disrupted eventually, because no business model lasts forever. That’s why we need to manage not for stability, but for disruption and that means shifting our mindset to focus not only on the market of today, but on the constant existential threat that we all face of a world in which we have lost relevance.

It’s always better to prepare than adapt. By the time you realize you need to adapt, it might very well be too late.

– Greg


An earlier version of this article first appeared on

Image: Pixabay

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