Stealth Innovation Is Not a Solution
Making innovation happen inside established organizations is just darned tough work. That's because there are deep and fundamental conflicts between innovation and day-to-day operations—and established organizations are built more for the latter than the former.
No wonder, then, that business people tend to conceptualize innovation as a battle — usually one between an heroic innovator and a bureaucratic octopus. Indeed, the two most common questions that I get when I present on this topic are: 1) How can I find the real innovation heroes in my organization?, and 2) How can I knock down at least some of the barriers that I know that they will face?
This is a completely natural and intuitive framing of the innovation challenge ... but it is also highly toxic.
In this idealized innovation romance, heroic individuals reign supreme. Brilliant people concoct brilliant ideas, and then they have the perseverance to make things happen no matter the obstacles. The reality, however, is quite different: Innovation is fundamentally a team sport.
The challenge for organizations, after all, is to find a way to simultaneously tackle two distinct and often conflicting tasks—sustaining what exists and building something new. One person working underground and fighting the system is not a realistic approach. Indeed, it borders on fantasy.
As such, I was disheartened, at first glance, to see last month's HBR article "The Case for Stealth Innovation." I immediately worried that in the minds of casual readers, the article would only reinforce innovation's most poisonous myth.
The article, on closer inspection, is realistic. Of critical importance, the article is not really about getting an innovation initiative to the finish line, it is simply about getting an idea developed to the point that it will gain the approval of senior managers.
The authors focus on a very specific potential problem — that if you show senior managers a half-baked idea and they reject it, they may later be too uncomfortable to "flip flop" when you do have a sufficient data to prove your case. Better, then, the authors argue, to work underground until you have a more defensible proposal.
And how to get the resources needed to gather the data, do the research, build the prototype, or formally test the idea? You beg, borrow, and steal, the authors advise. You build a coalition of the willing. You scrape by as best as you can, on whatever little slivers of free time your collaborators can contribute (after they finish their day job, of course), and on whatever pockets of free money you can find (in an efficiently run company, of course, these are very hard to come by). The authors even go so far as to suggest that stealth innovators develop a cover story, pushing into ethical grey areas in which deceiving senior managers is acceptable so long as the cause is noble.
A clever and persuasive stealth innovator may indeed be able to cobble together sufficient resources to move an idea forward. But all of this, just to get to the point that you gain formal approval for your project? Certainly, there must be a better way.
Two questions for senior executives:
1. How many stealth innovators do you want running around in your company?
2. Wouldn't it be smarter to allocate a budget for explicitly supporting your company's innovators in their efforts to convert half-baked ideas into more solidly researched proposals?
The article closes: "With the right backing and some hustle and ingenuity, young breakthrough ideas can be turned into successful corporate initiatives." Let's be sure to recognize that a formally approved proposal is still a long, long way from a "successful corporate initiative," and, unless the initiative is quite small and incremental, it will take much more than one stealth innovator's hustle and ingenuity to get to the finish line.