Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Darwinian Innovation and The Maverick as a Chameleon

Most of us attribute the concept of “survival of the fittest” to Charles Darwin.  Yet, according to the recent book Driven, Darwin actually never used the phrase.  Rather, Darwin’s ideas on evolution had more to do with survival of the most adaptable and less to do with survival of the strongest.  Survival goes to the species that can generate variations, select the best one and retain it for future generations.  Isn’t this what corporations are attempting to do when they seek to innovate?

Unlike the entrepreneur, the established corporation has to deal not only with this sometimes tumultuous evolutionary process in the market, but also it has to deal with variations, selection and retention internally as well.

Dealing with what Arie de Geus (The Living Company, 1997) calls the corporate immune system is a chronic management challenge for established companies seeking innovation.  Corporations, just like the human body, can and will produce antibodies that respond to innovation efforts as threats to corporate health.  Some corporations anticipate this immune response and turn to mavericks, their mentors and their methods for a way out.

The accompanying articles lend some insight and perspective on the corporate immune response system and the growing interest in mavericks, their mentors and their methods as a practical management framework for these challenges.

In addition, Vincent & Associates is planning a pilot study with younger and more mature companies to map out how they are dealing with their organizations’ immune response systems. If you have interest, please call Lanny Vincent for a prospectus of the study.

The Maverick as a Chameleon

By John Raley

Discontinuous innovation is defined as new innovations that are tangentially related to a company’s current business, which offer substantial opportunity for company growth and renewal.  An essential player in the arena of discontinuous innovations is the maverick.

The maverick finds discontinuous innovations by exploring outside the company’s “comfort zone” of products and technologies.  When the maverick finds a potential connection between something new and the company’s core competencies, the maverick is now faced with the challenge of how to bring the innovation back into the company.  And the challenge is a significant one.

By the very fact of the innovations being discontinuous and outside the company’s normal sphere of operations, the maverick cannot assume that others will see the same connections and value to company growth.

So how does a successful maverick bring a new, discontinuous innovation back home?  The secret is that a successful maverick must e a chameleon, one who is able to change how they relate to individuals depending on the functional orientation of the individual.  And the maverick must do so in a believable and credible manner.

When talking with technical people, the maverick must be able to effectively discuss the technical aspects of the new innovation and how it is tangentially related to the existing competencies of the technical organization.  When talking with marketing and business people, the maverick must be able to describe how the new innovation is compatible with the overall vision of the company.  When talking with financial people, the maverick must be able to conceptually discuss the dollars and cents of what it would take to implement the innovation and the financial benefits to the company. 

Not only does the successful maverick have to be somewhat fluent in discussing different aspects of the innovation, but also the maverick must be able to do so convincingly.  This requires credibility throughout the company that can only be obtained over time via ongoing interaction with the different functional areas.  The credibility that is developed not only aids the maverick in bringing new innovations back home, but it also aids the maverick in discovering innovations by viewing possibilities from a variety of points of view.

If you are looking for a successful maverick in your organization, look for someone with a broad range of interests and who networks well with different functional areas.  This is the person who is most likely to be able to see new, discontinuous innovations for your company and also efficiently and meaningfully explain the discovery to others.

John Raley is a business leader with state-of-the-art experience in global intellectual asset management. He is based in Maple Grove, MN, and can be reached at john_raley@pitnet.net.

These articles were originally published in Innovating Perspectives in March 2002. For
this and other back issues of our newsletter, please visit our website at innovationsthatwork.com or call (415) 387-1270. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

New is Necessary, But Not Sufficient

The characteristics of novelty may occupy center stage in the way accounts of innovation are told. However, what goes on backstage may contain the real gems.

Over 20 years ago, publications on innovation management splashed onto our reading lists with Foster’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Pinchot’s Intrapreneurship, etc. The past five years that splash has been subsumed by a flood of new titles on innovation, some of them destined to become classics, like Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma, Utterback’s Mastering the Dynamics of Innovation, and Nonaka’s Knowledge Creating Company.

In the process, our definition of innovation itself has begun to shift, for better or for worse.  In the past, the distinction was often made between creativity and innovation; the former being associated with newness, the latter being allied with reducing what is new to practice (i.e., commercialization.  Recently, I believe this old “black and white” contrast between innovation and creativity has been transplanted by a more precise and rich spectrum of “color” contrasts.  Some might even say that “innovation” has lost its meaning from such frequent use (or misuse).

The term innovation—in the context of innovation management theory and practice—is now used to include any one of the “particles or energy” that make up the “atomic structure” of innovation.  Discovery, invention, reduction-to-practice and diffusion, individually or collectively, are now what I believe practitioners have in mind when they use the term innovation.

This “atomic” metaphor is useful in pointing out that the nucleus of focused, creative collaborations may be at the heart of successful innovation. In other words, while novelty gets the press, it is the formal and informal process of the right mix of people, collaborating, that makes innovation happen.

Peter Drucker hinted at this when he observed that the “bright idea” is the least reliable source of innovation.  He says, “Bright ideas are the riskiest and least successful source of innovative opportunities. The casualty rate is enormous. No more than one out of every hundred patents for an innovation of this kind earns enough to pay back development costs and patent fees.  A far smaller proportion makes any money above its out-of-pocket costs. The entrepreneur is, therefore, well advised to forego innovations based on bright ideas, however enticing the success stories.”  (Innovation and Entrepreneurship, page 130.)

The central place that “newness” holds is not unlike the potential over-emphasis we place on entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs, champions and/or inventors—the individual heroes and heroines of the innovations we hear about. Most mental maps of innovations reserve large and influential space for these individuals. However, the actual terrain of innovation, I suspect, involves the less sexy, often unseen, combined efforts of many “common” folk.  The persistent passion and vision of the entrepreneur may be necessary, but it may not be sufficient to bring the new into reality.  That requires the sustained and focused creative collaborations of many others. 

This truth came to our attention recently when Erik Eidsmo directed us to an article by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker (July 22, 2002) entitled, “The Talent Myth: Are Smart People Overrated?” The article takes a look at the “deep-seated belief that having better talent at all levels [of the organization] is how you outperform your competitors.”  For those of us with an interest in innovation management, the article concludes on a note that should give us all a moment to pause.  Citing the management culture and philosophy of Enron, McKinsey and even Gary Hamel as the prime examples, the article concludes, “looking for people who had the talent to think outside the box, maybe it was the box that needed fixing.”

Gladwell makes this fundamental point: “The broader failing is the assumption that an organization’s intelligence is simply a function of the intelligence of its employees.  This assumption is understandable because our lives are so obviously enriched by individual brilliance. Groups don’t write great novels, and committee didn’t come up with the theory of relativity. But companies work by different rules. They don’t just create; they execute and compete and coordinate the efforts of many different people, and the organizations that are most successful at that task are the ones where the system is the star.”

Just as intelligence is necessary, but not sufficient for leading an organization, so novelty may be necessary, but it is likely, in and of itself, not sufficient.

This article was originally published in Innovating Perspectives in November 2002. For this and other back issues of our newsletter, please visit our website at innovationsthatwork.com or call (415) 387-1270.