Too Much Visibility Reduces Innovation
I’ve been thinking about innovation recently, how little I see of it at work, which seems strange because mine is a company that really does seem to value innovation. I’ve concluded that the reason is that we have attempted to combine a culture of innovation with a culture of visibility. We need to account for every penny spent, every hour worked, what we do needs to be aligned to corporate imperatives. All of which sounds like good management discipline in tough economic times.
The problem is as I think back on my own career the best innovations were always the ones that I needed to hide from management. I hid them because there was a high chance of them failing, if management had exposed these seedling ideas to too much light in their early stages, they would have withered and died. I doubt I would have even been able to explain the business case for these early ideas, much in the same way that start-up’s today often don’t know how they will make money. I know an idea worth trying when I see it, but I often don’t really know why, I just feel a spark of excitement that I want to explore, a thread that I want to follow.
As I’m following that thread of an idea, it’s definitely not work that could compete with the priorities that my manager has, or even my own priorities. It often doesn’t even address an important problem or opportunity, still given time these ideas often blossomed into my most important work.
I will describe just one of many of these idea threads that I just kept on following. Playing around with DCL (command shell for DEC-VMS mini-computers) one weekend I wanted to see if I could extend it to create a rapid prototyping language. This worked spectacularly well and allowed me in a single evening to create a manufacturing simulation that saved millions of dollars, a lunch time experiment negated the need to spend hundred of thousands on a new software product, another late evening’s prototyping resulted in a work management system that transformed our service delivery team, and proved many ideas that are only becoming mainstream today. Non of these four related ideas would have seen the light of day had I asked permission first, if I’d asked for funding, they would probably have been stopped if I hadn’t waited until I had results before I exposed them to critical assessment.
Of course many more ideas failed, but these failures built a resilience that’s critical to the job I do today as a low grade strategist. When you work in strategy you know that you are always making predictions and plans based on too little information, they will be wrong, the degree to which they are wrong is variable. You are trying to build a strategy that’s resilient to failure, but too much focus on resilience means you are not being bold enough to succeed. So you have to be comfortable with failure, with reassessing as you go, failing fast, pivoting when you get a better idea. Harvard Business Review puts it this way (although to be clear, I’m not claiming to be a ‘great strategist’)
To be a great strategist, we have to step back from the need to find a right answer and to get accolades for identifying it. The best strategists aren’t intimidated or paralyzed by uncertainty and ambiguity; they are creative enough to imagine possibilities that may or may not actually exist and are willing to try a course of action knowing full well that it will have to be tweaked or even overhauled entirely as events unfold.
Although hiding away my most fragile but exciting ideas worked for me, there must be a better way, the most profitable of companies might use an approach like 20% time, others might sanction small scale innovation experiments where risk is acknowledged and encouraged, some failure tolerated, but not with too much complacency.
Critically these experiment’s need to take place before they are really needed. Done too late a project might depend too much on them succeeding to be hands off. You often hear of a business trying to innovate or sell it’s way out of a crisis, but by then it’s too late. Fundamentally you need to do the innovation so that you have a proven pool of prototypes to draw upon, a business can only sell it’s way out of a crisis if it’s invested in having things to sell. You can’t innovate your way out of a crisis very often, the lead-time for great ideas to turn into profits is just too long.
To round up Scott Adams makes a great point about the fragility of great ideas and great execution as a way to predict success, basically even in combination they are often not enough. We forget this in almost all projects in the enterprise. We need to keep testing these ideas with customers and users, or eating our own dog food during development, we need to be open to feedback and not just keep trying to achieve success through force of project management will. We need to be prepared to abandon ideas that are not working out, to pivot:
The valley attracts some of the smartest humans on Earth, and each of those humans, being otherwise normal, probably assumed they could use their talent, brains, and hard work to achieve specific business goals, such as building product X and selling the company to Google for a billion dollars.
And then they find out that success in the start-up realm is mostly luck. They discover this by trying great ideas coupled with great execution and failing. And they further discover it by observing unexpected successes at other start-ups. Success simply can’t be predicted to any level of statistical comfort.
I often have my best ideas when I’m out walking or cycling. I was cycling today so I had a few ideas, one of them was this blog post. I tried using Siri to remind myself which was a disaster, so in the end I just recorded a voice note which worked much better. The photo is of my view as I trundled along on my bike.