Stop Inbreeding Innovation

It's a topic that perhaps would only appear on the pages of The Economist: an effort to establish North America's first elephant sperm bank. As the article notes, a single elephant named Jackson has "sired many of the calves born in the United States in the past decade, and scientists say new bloodlines are needed to avoid future inbreeding among his many progeny."

Inbreeding presents real problems. Recessive genes carrying debilitating diseases are more likely to pair. Problems perpetuate from generation to generation. Adaptation slows. "Project Frozen Dumbo" aims to collect genetic material from wild elephants in South Africa to stop the cycle. Generally, cross-breeding drives generally increase a species' long-term odds of survival by introducing new combinations into the gene pool.

Inbreeding isn't just a problem for captive elephants. Leaders seeking to drive innovation ought to ask themselves the degree to which their ideas are suffering because of innovation inbreeding. In many companies, it runs rampant, leading to staid ideas and disappointing performance.

Innovation inbreeding is when innovation efforts are consistently led by the same group of people who have lived their life within the company. Even worse is when innovation efforts are contained within individual functions, geographies, or product lines.

One common theme that carries across the innovation literature it is that breakthrough ideas almost always come from intersections where different disciplines brush up against each other. Consider research by British economist John Jewkes in the 1950s. Jewkes found that at least 46 of the 58 major inventions that had occurred to date in the 20th century occurred in the "wrong place" — in very small firms, by individuals, by people in "outgroups" in large companies, or in large companies in the wrong industry.

There are three simple ways to avoid innovation inbreeding:

  1. Force new internal connections. Large companies are amazingly diverse places. Bringing together representatives from different functions, geographies, levels, or business units can lead to breakthrough thinking. IBM for example has had notable success with "Innovation Jams" that bring together thousands of disconnected employees, outside experts, and even external friends and family. You don't have to bust the travel budget to hold these kinds of sessions given the growing number of online collaboration tools.
  2. Bring in outsiders. It never ceases to amaze me how companies going into new market spaces insist on making mistakes that people schooled in that market would easily avoid. The selective injection of outside hires into innovation activities can be a game-changer. Even noted promote-from-within Procter & Gamble will seek external talent when it charters efforts to explore new business models.
  3. Involve customers or other stakeholders. There are obvious dangers to involving customers in innovation activities, as they may have constraining conceptions about your company. But Eric von Hippel's research conclusively shows that in many industries customers innovate at a faster pace than companies do. Consider all the post-sales modifications avid bikers do to their frames, or even recipes developed by inventive chefs. Co-creation with customers sounds a bit clichéd, but it can pay big dividends.

Don't suffer from innovation inbreeding. Aggressively cross-breed and watch your innovation stock improve in measurable ways.

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