Founder & Chief Navigator at MileZero, collaborating with large orgs to go beyond innovation theater and create real results.
“The definition of insanity is repeating the same actions over and over again and expecting different results.” This quote, often misattributed to Albert Einstein, is what I consider a perfect description of what has been occurring in corporate innovation for the past 20-plus years.
In 1997, The Innovator’s Dilemma ignited interest and investment in innovation across industries, geographies and disciplines. Since then, seemingly countless articles, books and consultants (yes, including my company) have sprung forth offering help to startups and Fortune 100 companies alike.
Yet, the results remain the same.
After decades of incubators, accelerators, innovation teams, corporate venture capital, growth boards, hackathons, shark tanks, strategies, processes, metrics and futurists, the success rate of corporate innovation remains stagnant.
Stop the insanity.
I have spent my career in corporate innovation, first as part of the team that launched the Swiffer and Swiffer WetJet, later as a partner at an innovation firm founded by Clayton Christensen and now as the founder of my company, an innovation consulting and coaching firm.
I have engaged in and perpetuated the insanity, but I’ve also noticed something: I believe roughly 90% of what we do in corporate innovation speaks to our logic and reason, and 10% speaks to creativity and imagination. But often 0% of our work speaks to the hearts, hopes, fears, beliefs, desires and motivations of the corporate decision-makers who ultimately determine innovation’s fate.
We spend all our time, effort and money appealing to their brains when, in reality, the decisions are made in their hearts.
Of course, no corporate executive will ever admit to deciding with their heart. After all, good management is objective and data-based. But corporate executives are also human, and, like other humans, they make decisions with their hearts and justify it with their heads.
Consider this common scenario.
To put this into perspective, imagine that a CEO has announced to investors and employees that “innovation” is a corporate priority and the company will be making a “significant” investment in it over the next three years. A chief innovation officer is put in place and innovation teams start popping up in every business unit.
These business unit innovation teams are staffed with a few people and given budgets in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. They are told to use design thinking and lean startup methods to create new products or services to better serve existing or new customers.
Each business unit team, excited by their new mandate and autonomy, fan out to talk to customers, host brainstorming sessions and create prototypes. They pull together business cases showing the huge potential of the new product or service and run experiments to prove early market traction. They meet regularly with the business unit president and other key decision-makers.
Everything is going perfectly until, about a year into the work, the company has a bad quarter and, as a result, the business unit is missing expectations or an innovation experiment is delivering worse-than-expected results.
Suddenly, everyone is a skeptic. Budgets get cut. Team members are reassigned to “help” other projects. The team’s portfolio shrinks to a single project. And just like that — poof. The innovation team is gone.
What went wrong?
The company did everything by the book: It hired the right talent, established dedicated teams with dedicated budgets, talked to customers and created a portfolio of ideas, built prototypes and made small bets.
Innovation is an investment in the future, so one bad quarter shouldn’t be its death knell. But in my experience it often is.
The reason is that executives know innovation must be invested in today to produce results in the future, but they do not believe that they will be rewarded for prioritizing the future over the present.
This belief then leads to fear about the uncertainty of future returns and the repercussions of failing to deliver the present. This then leads to fear that their career will stall or that they will lose their job, which then spirals into all sorts of other fears until, eventually, the executive feels forced into a “them or me” decision.
In other words, they decide with their heart (which is experiencing fear) and justify it with their head (the bad quarter).
What’s the answer?
The solution to this is neither simple nor quick, but it is effective: I believe we, the innovation experts, must dedicate as much time and effort to recognizing and addressing the thoughts, feelings and mindsets executives and key decision-makers face in the pursuit of corporate innovation as we spend on the structures, processes and activities of corporate innovation.
If this sounds like coaching, you’re right. Just as executives benefit from coaching when they take on new and greater responsibilities, they can also benefit, in the form of increased confidence and better results, when they have coaches guiding them through innovation efforts. This is because innovation often requires executives to do the opposite of what they instinctively do when managing the core business.
Innovation is a head and a heart endeavor, and we need to start approaching it as such. To do anything less is the definition of insanity.