Two Innovation Lies and a Truth

There's a popular ice breaker called Two Lies and a Truth — you state three semi-outlandish things about yourself and a group tries to guess which of the statements is true. The last time I played the game, I said that I was a professional software programmer at the age of 14, I pitched a no-hitter in Little League Baseball, and I am a distant relative of singer-songwriter Marc Anthony.*

Executives unintentionally play a game like this too. If asked to state their three biggest frustrations with their innovation efforts, I bet most of them would say: my organization lacks good ideas, we don't have enough resources to drive innovation, and innovation takes too long. But only one of these is actually true.

I have yet to find a company where the first statement isn't false. Almost every company is drowning in ideas. But there are a number of reasons why executives might not realize this:

  1. There are no mechanisms to extract ideas out of the heads of front-line employees.
  2. The process by which ideas are selected, filtered, and shaped systematically strips the excitement and energy out of the best ideas.
  3. A great idea sits on a shelf because it was introduced before its time.

Before you say that your company lacks good ideas, make sure you've really inventoried what you have. You might be surprised by what you find.

Similarly, I've found few companies that truly lack sufficient resources to invest in innovation-driven growth. The root problem is that people are working on the wrong ideas. Sometimes these are incremental ideas that have little chance of having material impact, but they keep people busy. Sometimes these are dreaded zombie projects — projects that executives thought they had killed, yet still have life because of misguided passion by employees. Or these can be efforts that have captivated engineers, but don't address a root customer need.

My general rule of thumb is that companies can safely cut about 50% of their innovation projects. That doesn't necessarily mean cutting 50% of the people working on innovation. Rather, people can flow to the best ideas, or can shift from juggling 10 different mediocre ideas to focusing on one great one.

The final idea — that innovation takes too long — well, that's the truth. The ironic driver of this problem inside many organizations is an abundance of resources. Many companies can endlessly study problems because they have relatively large budgets and staffs, whereas entrepreneurs move quickly because they have no choice — once they run out of money, the game is over. Setting tight deadlines and doling out resources after teams have hit key knowledge milestones can dramatically accelerate innovation.

There's no doubt that innovation remains a challenge at many large organizations. But before throwing up your hands, make sure you've reached the root of the perceived innovation blockers. You might find ways to do things faster and better.

* While I did spend some time as a pitcher, I never twirled a no-hitter; Marc Anthony and I share no relations; one poor soul did register a program I wrote in the late 1980s that let bulletin board system owners run football pools on their sites.

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