How not to fail in corporate innovation…

This post was cowritten by the genius D’ave Meyer who also gets the point just right and makes work such a barrel of laughs.  At the FOUNDeRY, we’ve managed to celebrate a few successes in this morass we call corporate innovation (we’re lucky, we live within a brand that gets innovation), and we’re doing things that are actually shifting the business forward. But, it wasn’t easy…

‘Innovation’ is a term that is as misused and misunderstood (in many large corporate machines) as ‘customer service’. Many speak of it, more read the book-of-the-month about it, but precious few do a stich of work to make it happen… It’s right up there with ‘paradigm shifting’ and ‘values’.

Most ‘innovation departments’ stride off down their own paths (which is, admittedly, the whole point), and they do it really well. There are big dreams and massive expectations. And then, somewhere, they lose their way, career straight back into the prevailing cultural DNA of ‘the way we do things around here’ and end up being just another expensive project.

The irony of starting initiatives to create change and then hamstringing the agents who are supposed to make that change happen is lost on most executives, but not on the hollow souls who tried so hard, before being shuffled back in to some other department.

(Months later, at a retreat, or conference, those same execs will hear some digital guru (usually a guy who’s walked this road somewhere else) spouting off about new ideas, complain about the lack of innovation and start calling for innovation in the very businesses that snuffed it out so recently… And around the roundabout we go.)

The fact is that companies rap the change lingo and seem, theoretically, to really want to change. But, as soon as changes start to happen, the corporate heels dig in with full force. If we had to put this event into words, it would be: “We want radical change! But don’t make it too radical! And don’t change anything!”

(We recommend Stan Slap’s book, Under the hood to discover the fascinating reasons why this happens.)

The FOUNDeRY, RMB’s innovation department, against all odds and expectations, is driving some great innovation within a large corporate. We’re creating. We’re moving the needle! And we’re being encouraged to do both, too! If you’re surprised, you’re not alone. So are we.

How we got this far – and survived – is worth recording. If you feel you’re in the same sinking ship we were in, here’s what we learned over the last three-or-so years. Here are our 10 steps for how not to fail in corporate innovation.

   1.  Dam(n) the sludge

The reason you have your sexy new job is to infect the existing system – a system that doesn’t want to be infected. And, unless you separate yourself from that system, it will just reabsorb you – the antibodies will kill the inno-fection. Us Foundery folk call it ‘the sludge’. You know what we mean!

In our minds, the most important tip we can give is to create a separate innovation entity. It’s crucial to isolate yourselves from a structural point of view (and for the accountants out there, that means the budget, too). Create it, ringfence it, and guard it with your life. You have to create a closed system within the closed system. Be your own bosses, reporting to the CEO (maybe) – at the very least, someone who gets the bigger picture – but not to the cronies (the heel-diggers). If you want to do something cool, you need to be autonomous – answering to the business’s end-results only, not to the people they will affect!

Dam(n) that sludge, or it will drown you.

A good politician on the team is pretty useful too.

   2. The death by a 1000 days

You’ve heard that it takes a 1000 days to build a functioning business, and seven years to be sustainable? Feels kinda biblical, but it’s been absolutely true in our case. Trust us on this one — you won’t pull it off in in year one. Or year two. And every day of those years will feel like the Chinese death by 1000 cuts. This isn’t a scenic stroll – it’s called pathfinding – you’re slashing your way through the unexplored jungle in the hope of the perfect view. In the first 300 days you’ll find yourself asking yourself, ‘What the…am I doing!?’ After year two, you may have some idea. After 1000 days (year 3) you will start to feel like this might just work and you should start getting some traction. It will all start to go right if you can just survive those 1000 days.

How DO you survive that long?

    3.  It’s not about the tech

You have a job to do. Your job – just like any other – has to deliver value to the business. Stop talking about how ‘innovative’ and ‘disrupting’ you are. (In fact, stop using those words entirely. You either are, or you aren’t, but saying them over and over again won’t make it so.) Stop hoping big data and AI will help you keep your job. If you think your job is fiddling with iPads and wearables, go buy a beanie, grow an ironic moustache and hang out in hubs.

You are paid for results – focus on them. You have to remember who you are serving. You are out there pathfinding away so that you can change the lives of your clients (internal and external) – it’s their needs that you must keep your eyes firmly fixed on.  Those things that your clients wish they could change — you need to make them happen.

It’s not about the technology, it’s about creating a better business too. If you look at everything through a ‘what tech can I use’ lens, you’re never going to solve any problems. You need to look at problems, and see how needs can be better met – possibly by using technology. Even self-driving cars fulfil a human need.

So you know, you are not going to get this right the first time. Money will be spent (more than you thought) and hair will be pulled. This gets us to the next point.

   4. Don’t hate the haters

Not everyone is going to get this. Most won’t. What they think that you do, and what you’re actually going to do, are not the same thing.  Folks will wonder why you get to wear the hoodies. And work your own hours. And have your ‘Googly’ workspace. And how come you get all that budget? Of course, they won’t know that you’ve forgotten what normality looks like and that the ping-pong table just became another coffee-ringed workspace…if they got it, they’d be on your team.

Develop thicker skin – and don’t let the haters discourage you.  But, at the same time, don’t ignore them. Much of the feedback you get will have an element of reality buried deep within it. There are always learnings hidden somewhere within the antibody rhetoric —sift them out from the disparagement. Listen to it. Learn from it.

They will only start to get it when you get it (somewhere close to the magic 1000 day mark), and then you’re going to make some really good friends.

… but, how are you supposed to do anything if everyone thinks you’re a waste of resources, and won’t listen to you?

   5.  Get a disciple (or a gang of them)

People will generally tell the story of the moment. The first one will be what a waste of money hoodies and ping-pong tables you are. The disciple is the one who keeps those stories in check with counter-rhetoric. He brings everyone back to the reason you’re there in the first place.

A disciple is not a follower. What you need is someone whose voice people respect, who will sell on your behalf to the rest of the business. Someone with clout! One (to start with) very special individual who has the gravitas to command. He’s the biggest guy on the playing field, and he’ll protect you from the bullies.

And then, one day, when everything feels the bleakest it’s ever felt, you’ll start making a real difference, and more disciples will arrive. They’ll all do the same job, but across all levels of the business. They’re the ahead-of-the-curve guys that everyone else wants to be. They are listened to.

With a gang of powerful advocates on your side, you won’t have to convince the entire business – just a few good (wo)men — and they’ll create the following for you.

And, if you can’t at least get the CEO to see what you’re doing, then don’t bother. Find a new job or go hang out at hubs, because you’re never going to make it – through no fault of your own…

   6.  Failing sucks. A lot.

Before we start the obvious talk of ‘fear of failure’ or ‘get ready to fail’ or ‘fail fast’, let’s talk about how that failure will eat your soul from the inside like that soul-sucking dark mist in all horror films…

And you will fail. You will be disappointed. That disappointment destroys the ego, and that leaves you with doubt and uncertainty – neither of which are suitable environments for ideas or creating the energy to continue pushing forward. You need to be prepared for it – forewarned is forearmed!

Henry Ford said that “failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently”.  That’s a lovely concept, but a more relevant one is that you have to go into this with your eyes wide open.

Learning by failing fast is effective and efficient, but it’s still soul destroying.  The trick here is to make sure the team is fully prepared for it, ready to weather it, to support one another, and that the business leadership has your back for when you do (see Rule #5).

   7.  Nobody likes ugly

Most techies out there like to begin with a beta version that has all the functionality, but without all the sexy stuff. After all, the client is buying functionality, right? They hired us to solve a problem. Right?

Wrong. You may think it silly, but humans eat with their eyes first. Nobody salivates over a list of ingredients chucked into a mixing bowl. But, show them the finished meal, in all its high-colour and fragrant glory, and you’ve got a sale! Looks are important. Based on a single, glancing look, a Kardashian will get more right swipes on Tinder than Marie Curie. But, in most cases, a single, glancing look is all the time your product has.

Most people can’t imagine your vision of the final product. They can’t see possibility through the rudimentary UI and ugly back-end, and they’ll think your (soon-to-be) amazing product is pretty…bleh. And it will be killed. Dead.

We’ve learned (the hard way) to show outsiders a gorgeous, sexy wireframe and talk high-level details, rather than try to explain our way over an ugly-but-functional beta, to get them excited.

This has become one of our mantras. “Nobody likes ugly!” This leads to our second mantra…

   8.  FOMO is a no-no

Good intentions may pave the road to hell, but they also pave the way to redundancy.

We know you want to do everything. But you can’t. Every project is beyond exciting, and a chance for you to show what you got – we get it! But nothing will get done.

When we first started, we thought we could do anything and everything. No matter the challenge, we would take it on, and try to work out the details later. At one stage, we were running almost 50 projects with just nine people!

Start with one thing. And put all your energy into it. Limiting your focus is the best way to get some cool stuff done, and a few runs on the board.

How do you choose just a few projects from the hundreds of potentials? In the medical field, they call it triaging – where they look at which patient is the most critical based on set criteria (usually who will die soonest) and prioritise based on that.

Missing out sucks. But, so having does a drawer full of half-built projects, with nothing to show for all the effort you’ve put in. Say it with me: FOMO IS A NO-NO!

   9.  Track and field

Innovation can be nebulous, what with all the brainstorming, ideating and general dreaming. And you can’t rush creativity (so they say).

But you can track execution. In fact, track everything. Track developers and their average speed-of-completion. Track the hours you spend on tasks, and track the value of those tasks. Track average project length, and track response times. Don’t leave the data analytics to product development, you need data analytics on team performance, run rate and efficiency.

Because we have a finger on the pulse of our production (TRACK), we can change direction at a moment’s notice, allowing us to FIELD anything that gets hurled our way. We can re-triage (see Rule #8) incredibly quickly if need be. We can also make sure we’re as efficient as possible, know who works best on what kind of jobs, and where we’ll be by the end of the day. Having this dashboard view makes life much simpler and our department’s output at the leading edge.

We use the Agile approach, which has helped tremendously. But there are heaps of methodologies, software solutions and workflow managers that will help you keep everything under control.

   10.  Partnership

There are two things you need to know at the beginning of this final tip.

The first is that, as an individual, you can’t do everything. And nor should you. Which leads us to the second point, which is that you are not as good as you think you are, champ.

It’s impossible to be the best at everything all the time, and you’re going to have to learn to lean on, and learn from, others. In fact, we’d say that, no matter how good you actually are, you aren’t the best at anything. If that’s the case, then why not hire those who are?

You need to let go. And you need to give yourself a break. The partnerships you form and how you control them will, for the most part, dictate your level of success. You are the ringmaster, not the circus animals. Whether it’s for design, strategy, development or products, there’s someone or many someones out there who get your vision, and can build it faster than you ever could, freeing you up to concentrate on running your department, its outputs, and its people.

In addition, don’t reinvent things that are already built well — shop first, build second. If you need a plug-in for some new platform, source one you can (as the name implies) just plug in. Our internal and external partners are a large part of our success. If you find the right ones, and leave them to do what they do best, you’re going to save yourself a lot of time (and a lot of pain).

We could go on, but these, for us, were our most critical lessons. Getting this right is going to be hard, alright, nearly impossible. But it’s only nearly impossible. If clever guys in the UK can figure out how to train mozzies not to bite you (Google that – it’s a real thing) you can figure out how to make it work.

Whether you’re the head of innovation, or just someone trying to make a change – Godspeed on your journey. It will be a rocky one but, damn, it can be one of the best rides you’ve ever had.

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