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8 Make-or-Break Rules for Innovation

In my last posting, I laid out three reasons for why large companies should out-innovate start-ups to capture the disruptive opportunities that are being enabled by a perfect storm of technological innovations. In this post, I offer eight rules for how they can do so.

Based on research on thousands of innovation efforts—both successes and failures—that went into The New Killer Apps: How Large Companies Can Out-Innovate Start-Ups, corporate innovators should apply these rules to help their companies get out of their own way and leverage their assets. By doing so, they can take better advantage of innovation opportunities than start-ups can. The eight rules fall under three general categories that distinguish winners from losers: Thinking Big, Starting Small and Learning Fast.

Successful innovators “think big” by considering the full range of possible futures. They facilitate innovation by daring to pursue “killer apps”—new products and services that might rewrite the rules of a category.

By contrast, failed innovators tend to “think small.” They assume that change will be a slight variant of the present and just look for incrementally faster, better or cheaper innovations.

Here are three rules designed to help you think big:

Rule 1. Context is worth 80 IQ points. As you start to “think big,” you must understand the information-technology environment in which you are operating. Six technological innovations—combining mobile devices, social media, cameras, sensors, the cloud and what we call emergent knowledge—are reshaping both what is possible and the competitive landscape in every information-intensive industry.

Mary Meeker, the noted business analyst, argues that these technologies are putting more than $36 trillion in market value up for “reimagination.” ($36 trillion is the total market value of the 10 industries most vulnerable to change over the next few years.) You must understand all the traditional forces inside your industry and come to grips with these six technological megatrends, both individually and in combination.

Rule 2Embrace your doomsday scenario. Thinking big is not just about bold aspirations; it also requires understanding the starkest threats facing your organization.

One reason to look for doomsday scenarios is that it helps spot vulnerabilities and spark improvements even if doomsday never comes. Another reason is that it helps to build alignment. Getting beyond vague views and developing detailed, shared views of existential threats and how quickly they might arrive can help management teams develop consensus on timing and move forward in unison. But people tend to avoid thinking about truly worst-case scenarios, so this rule is designed to make sure that they do so.

Rule 3. Start with a clean sheet of paper. A markets change, large companies’ strategic assets too often become liabilities. Success brings with it priorities to juggle, budgets to protect, bonuses to maximize, resources to defend, loyalties to reward, egos to stroke. People have all sorts of incentives in big organizations to slow or halt innovation, and many manage to do so.

That’s why it is important to periodically start with a clean sheet of paper and think about key trends and looming inventions, then envision how everything could come together to transform the business—without worrying about what people, capabilities and other assets have to be added or subtracted to become that perfect version of the business.

Start Small

Successful companies “start small”after thinking big. Rather than jumping on the bandwagon for one potentially big idea, they break the idea down into smaller pieces for testing and take the time to make sure that key stakeholders are working in unison.

By contrast, companies that fail in the face of a disruptive technology tend to swing from complacency to panic. Initially, they not only don’t see the opportunities; they can’t accept that they’re in danger. When they finally see the disruption, they panic. They make a last-chance, massive bet on a single idea—only to have it not pan out. Here are three rules that ensure you are starting small:

Rule 4. First, let’s kill all the finance guys. To start small, make sure you don’t settle on financial projections too soon; they can’t be accurate, and they hamstring innovation. By definition, disruptive innovations deal with future scenarios that are hard to read and where the right strategy is not clear; the right strategy has to emerge over time.

This rule, then, is a reminder to take a more iterative approach to understanding the finances of new businesses. A culture has to be established, beginning at the very top of the organization, that says newborns get to crawl and walk and maybe even start preschool before their talents are evaluated.

Rule 5. Get everyone on the same page. While the tendency is to leap into action as soon as a possible killer app is identified, it is crucial to take the time to step back, assess where the organization is and identify possible impediments to change. One challenge is to understand who wins and who loses if the envisioned innovations succeed. If an innovation has to kill the core business to succeed, it won’t be possible to get everyone to embrace it. Those in the existing business will always try to kill rather than be killed. In some cases, you can delay an uprising by being discreet. In other cases, where those not on the same page can’t cripple you, you can be overt and simply pit a new business against the existing one (while protecting the new efforts sufficiently).

Another challenge is to understand the cultural implications of the desired innovation. Many executives believe they can change a culture to suit a strategy, rather than try to make the strategy fit the culture. That route is possible but usually takes longer than most are willing to admit. Sometimes it is better to work with what you’ve got. The key is to understand that there is no silver bullet to managing change. Instead, you must form a cleared-eye view of the particular circumstances that must be addressed and manage accordingly. Remember Nelson Mandela’s admonition, “Lead from the front but don’t leave your base behind.”

Rule 6Build a basket of killer options. Once you are ready to start building killer apps, make sure to invest only small amounts and test a number of possibilities. At the early stages, any fledgling killer app is more likely to fizzle than sizzle. Do not waste a lot of money plunging toward The Answer. What you really want is a finely nuanced understanding of The Question. Do this by employing the discipline associated with financial options. Rather than investing tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to build out a full-fledged business, invest in iterative experiments that can be expanded as they prove out, or be set aside if they don’t.

It is important to limit the number of options to a handful. Innovations of transformative potential require CEO attention—which is limited—to make sure the efforts are protected from the organizational antibodies; to make sure they do not take on a life of their own; and, to shepherd them to scale if their potential proves viable. (In most organizations, only the CEO can play this role.) Our experience is that the right number is around three “killer options” and no more than five.

Learn Fast

In addition to thinking big and starting small, successful innovators “learn fast.”They take a scientific approach to innovation. They figure out how to gather comprehensive data and quickly analyze both what’s working and what isn’t. They have the institutional discipline to set aside or alter projects based on that analysis. By contrast, companies that fail have neither the time nor the inclination to learn. They fall into the “it’s all about implementation” trap and end up expertly implementing a failed strategy. Here are two rules to make sure you are learning fast.

Rule 7. A demo is worth a thousand pages of a business plan. Too often, early success or optimism about a big idea quickly transforms it into a conventional business development program: a long march where the only acceptable outcome is to get a product to market. As a result, people do all the analysis they can, however imprecise, and the result becomes The Plan. Some of this is due to habit—planning is what big companies do, and business initiatives can’t typically proceed without detailed business plans and reams of confirming spreadsheets.

Our research revealed the need for less planning and more testing. Rather than prematurely building out the new business, keep prototyping to explore key questions, such as whether the technology will work, whether the product concept will meet customer needs and whether customers will prefer it over the competitive alternatives.

Rule 8. Remember the Devil’s Advocate. Setting up the right process for demos, prototypes and scaling is crucial but only half the battle. The other half is making sure you ask the tough questions during the process and remain open to hearing uncomfortable answers. Devil’s advocates are individuals or groups whose role is to stress test critical assumptions, key forecastsand other make-or-break aspects of a potential killer app. The goal is not to interject an abject naysayer into the decision-making process but rather to drive at the answer that best serves the long-term success of the organization. Nor is the goal to relegate the task of critical thinking to the devil’s advocate. Instead, the devil’s advocate process serves as a safety net, and, because everyone knows that tough questions are forthcoming, they’ll be more likely to confront them.

Done right, a devil’s advocate frames the most important questions that need to be answered before moving to the next stage of commitment. The advocate also guides the process along, making sure that the right amount of uncertainty is reduced at each step and that the possibility of a graceful exit is always preserved.

* * *

Following these eight rules won’t guarantee killer-app-level innovation. Business is a contact sport. Some companies win. Some companies lose. That won’t change.

What following these rules will do, however, is help you overcome the biggest barriers to innovation and turn size into an advantage. You’ll do a far better job of sensing what’s really going on in your market and of putting yourself at the forefront of the powerful trends that are transforming our economy.

Breaking Through The Barrier Of Hardnosed Workers, Part 2

Righting The Ship Wrongly
For torturous purposes, let’s say that you are an executive manager who has inherited the type of hardnosed workforce described in Part 1 of this series.Your laborers are largely emotionally repressed, unsympathetic, narcissistic, uncontrollable and prone to permanently go AWOL. Ditto for your supervisors and managers. Collectively, your work force constitutes a change-resistant barrier that thwarts every attempt at achieving continuous improvement.

As risk strategist Greg Pena suggests, you set about to correct the obstructionist nature of your workforce. Otherwise, your best management efforts are “doomed from the start.”

Which quick-action strategy do you choose?

  1. Create and enforce more rules designed to secure better worker behavior?
  2. Implement a system of rewards and awards designed to reinforce good behavior?
  3. Pursue an aggressive program of quality assurance that requires strict behavioral compliance and reporting?
  4. Institute a behavior observation program that results in establishment of improved work procedures and oversight?

This is not a trick question.

Damage Control

To begin, you might start by quickly doing what others have traditionally done in similar situations.

  1. Assess where the most “damage” is being done by the most resistant workers.
  2. Speed headlong in pursuit of the holy grail of gaining control of those workers.

You do this because you’ve been taught that lack of control is the foundational cause of rebellious behavior. Control is considered a weapon. To heck with human resource management laws and employee management policies. They are slow, ineffective weapons of change. You need something that works quickly.

So to gain instant influence, you deploy whichever of the quick-action strategies (above, a–d) that you think will give you the fastest results. Each approach promises control; all are known quantities. Together, they constitute the bulk of management’s current wisdom in wrestling control from hardnosers.

The strategies are as follows.

a. Control By Directive — create and enforce more rules.
This is an old tactic closely associated with authoritarian or directive leadership style — it is dependent upon the strict use of the chain-of-command for enforcement. The strategy involves using rules and regulations to achieve (by demand) behavior compliance — control. It is the attempt to regulate and regiment behavior.

b. Control By Incentive — implement a system of rewards and awards.
This is a popular method of gaining control because it seems to “make the most sense” when it comes to worker motivation. It is based upon the belief that workers will be motivated to better behavior if they receive objective rewards, incentives or other strokes of positive reinforcement. Typically these take the form of safety awards, cash rewards or financial incentives that depend on the utilization of performance evaluations, merit ratings, or periodic reviews.

c. Control By Quality — pursue an aggressive program of quality assurance.
This is an old but evolving strategy, currently masquerading as the GRC (Governance, Risk & Compliance) movement. It promises the possibility of simultaneously achieving quality assurance, risk control, regulatory compliance, and behavioral control — with a dash of ethics, integrity, and maturity thrown in — if only we pursue the perfect quality assurance processes. This strategy started as the ISO quality certification process in which rigid paperwork and reporting processes are utilized by managers as an accountability tool.

d. Control By Observation — institute a behavior observation program.

This is a relatively new approach to gaining control of worker behavior. It is known by its popular name, behavior-based safety. In this approach, workers are trained to make intense and frequent observations of common work tasks in order that they might consult together and develop better methods for carrying out the work task. Workers are also taught the basics of how to communicate with each other when feedback is given on performance of work tasks. They are typically required to submit observational reports to authorities.

You don’t need to look hard to find assistance in whichever line of attack you choose. Professional pundits and practitioners of each stratagem are plentiful. So you select a plan. And it initially appears to work.

But its effectiveness in providing you anything other than short-term victory is sadly wasteful — your plan does not consider the characteristics of hardnosed behavior described in Part 1 of this series. None of the traditional control strategies do.

Eventually, you join the ranks of the frustrated transportation manager (Part 1) who implemented a safety training observation program, improved his operational policies, and led his organization in the ISO 9000 certification process — all to little avail. He still couldn’t control his hardnosers.

Changing the emotionally insular nature of rejection-prone people is hard. But as the manager stated, “The alternative, letting them continue to drag our company down, is not an option.”

Rejection On Demand
The fundamental mistake made by a majority of managers is assuming that control is the main issue, that control reduces resistance. And while control certainly occupies a high priority, the real issue is how it is obtained and why it is necessary to sustain it.

The tendency is to forget the lesson learned by all authorities. Any attempt to gain and maintain control of people in the wrong way ultimately results in the rejection of the authority.

Historian Page Smith states it this way. “The whole course of history indicates that one of the most potent bases of common action is a common sense of unjust subordination.”

Unjust. Fair or not, that’s how the common hardnoser views your attempt to gain control of him when you employ any of the well-intentioned strategies listed above. Setting aside the perception of justice, the hardnoser makes a valid point. Many times management demonstrates that it doesn’t know how to gain control, nor bother to explain why it is necessary.

What? Is Not The Question
Tom Slattery, Environmental Health and Safety Manager at POET Plant Management, pulls no punches in holding management accountable. “The way management and safety people talk to and treat the workforce,” he says, “is largely responsible for the ‘bad attitudes’ in the workforce.”

Slattery cites instances in which management says it wants one thing yet subtly rewards the opposite, essentially abusing its control. Placing himself in the mix, he says, “We do not follow through on promises, ask for true employee participation, nor explain the ‘why’ behind policies.”

In the realm of change-resistance, telling someone what to do and how to do it without telling them why they are doing it — why it is to their benefit to do it — is a cardinal sin. As Slattery emphasizes, telling them poorly adds fuel to the fire. It is the equivalent of assuming the listener has no needs other than the need to obey the management. Part 3 of this series explores the depth of the disdain created by this assumption.

Any child knows that asking an uncaring parent the why question (in a response to a command) almost always solicits the brusque answer, “Because I said so.” Yep, that really works.

Ignoring the need of workers to know why they must relinquish autonomy in order to follow the lead of management will provoke resistance from even-tempered people, much less needy hardnosers. Yet historically, that’s what management has done.

In the attempt to gain control of hardnosers, we’ve employed a lot of ‘what to do’ and ‘how to do it’ tactics without first considering the felt needs of the worker. Management asks for the rejection it anticipates.

As a result, a Cycle of Rejection develops. Most organizations that spawn hardnosers are guilty of entering this 6-step cycle. As illustrated below, the black colored steps represent management; red represents workers.

The 6 R’s Leading To Rejection

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Frequently the cycle of management missteps — the six R’s — that reinforce an ever-increasing change-resistant work force is as follows. If the object is control, this is how not to get it.

Revelation — Often using poor and impersonal communication, management tries to educate the worker with bits and pieces of the performance puzzle, most often “what we want you to do” and “how we want you to do it.” These are typically the minimum requirements of compliance — the policies, practices, or procedures that the worker is expected to obey/follow.

Response — The worker responds negatively to poor communication and perceived command-and-control tactics — they remain largely unresponsive to performance expectations. The worker equates poor communication with perceived neglect of both his real and felt needs. He begins to develop an attitude of skepticism/pessimism towards management.

Rationalization — Based upon the worker’s non-response, management perceives a resistance in the worker. Rationalizing that the only way to accomplish its desired performance goals is to use more direct commands, they resort to directive leadership methods designed to seize control of the sources of resistance and to force worker compliance.

Regimentation — Upon rationalizing that the worker will only respond to authoritative command structure, managers put forth a regimented series of operational rules and regulations — more specifics about what to do and how to do it — designed to force the worker to shape up (comply).

Resistance — The worker resists management even further, thinking that management is overbearing and taking away his ability to conduct his job as he sees fit. The process of addressing performance management through poor communication skills and mistaken tactics results in an increasingly change-resistant hardnosed worker.

Repeat — Management redoubles its effort to control the worker without rethinking its strategy. Nor does it stop to analyze the nature of the resistant worker and his felt needs. Repeated failure to do so leads the worker to forthrightly reject any and all attempts by management to seize control. To the worker, management becomes an unjust usurper.

Management’s inclination to simultaneously consider the steps of Rationalization and Regimentation are why they appear back-to-back in the cycle. As management becomes more entrenched, determined to win the control war, the gap between the two steps narrows. It becomes easier to rationalize that more regimentation is needed.

Duck & Cover
What the Cycle of Rejection illustrates is the futility of thinking that command will result in the control of hardnosers. Quite the opposite. But while it’s folly to follow this path of thinking, there is an even more damaging option to choose: doing nothing.

An operations manager whose supervisors had long been on the road to rebellion had this exact strategy in mind — do nothing — when he sheepishly asked the author, “You aren’t going to stir the pot, are you?”

The manager was worried that a few forthright words from the author’s keynote address to the supervisors would enflame the emotions that lay, he thought, comfortably submerged below the thin surface of civility. Yet his boss, the business owner, wanted a permanent solution to his hardnosers’ resistance. He wanted to take back control of his workforce. But no one knew how, much less why. Part 3 of this series will show you both.

Yes, the pot will be stirred.

Bibliography

“Focus On Teamwork, Attitude Improves Quality And Safety.” The Waterways Journal. April 25, 1994: 41-44

Newton, Ron. No Jerks On The Job. Irving, TX. PenlandScott Publishers, 2010.

Riddle, Glenden P. An Evaluation Of The Effectiveness Of Stress Camping Through The Use Of The Taylor-Johnson Temperament Analysis Exam. Research Project. Dallas Theological Seminary, December 1978.

Taylor, Robert. Taylor-Johnson Temperament Analysis Manual. Thousand Oaks: Psychological Publications, Inc., 1992.