Innovation and revolutions


Innovation, especially innovation in larger companies, has been on my mind for quite a while.
It’s like true love, everyone talks about it, but only few have really seen it. It maybe so in more than one aspect, as those who did experience it, say it’s lifechanging.
Some companies are better at this than others, but as far as I know no-one has ever come up with a formula that works for everyone. I doubt there’s a decisive winning formula, but what I have seen quite often are factors that almost always make innovation (and not only that) fail.

One of the largest factors that often lead to failure is treating innovation projects as a revolution. We like revolutions (well, the young people do, and we all are still young, right?), it has a certain… dash to it.
We want our innovation to be revolutionary, to change the world or at least the company. Hey, it’s going to be different, it’s going to be better, it’s going to take over the world! Che Guevara t-shirts are still selling well (albeit the irony seems to be lost on those who buy it), and don’t even start about Steve Jobs…

Revolutions are always large, and full of vision. In companies it means big budget, sponsored by big names, with large teams. It looks great on your CV, you achieved something! Even better, it can be good for one’s ego – you DID SOMETHING THAT MATTERED!

But there’s a fatal problem with revolutions. They are impossible to control. It’s one of the defining points of revolutions – you unleash something that is pretty uncontrollable – whatever you think about it. In company terms, it doesn’t sound that impressive anymore, does it? You could, quite correctly, say that that’s why people plan, and the larger project, the bigger and more detailed plan there is. True, true. I just hope that your toolbox for the planning includes well working crystal ball. Mine tends to get a bit hazy more than 30 seconds into the future.

The organization that has the most experience with planning in the history of mankind is military. And one thing they learned through the millennia, is that few if any plans survive the first shot fired. Some of the turning battles of the history hinged on a chance that no-one could plan for. Pearl Harbor was as perfectly planned and executed as you could wish for, yet it ultimately failed. But Lady Luck intervened, and the big prize – carriers – were away. It cost Japanese the war.

Plans are not bad – they make you think of at least some aspects of the problem, but at the same time they can very easily lead you down a wrong path and remove the flexibility.
Of the top of my head, I can’t think of a revolution that would end up the way its instigators wanted to. If you think you know about one, I invite you to share – but expect some detailed questions about the motivations of people who started it. I’d also point out, that with revolutions (less so with revolutionaries) we have a pretty strong survivor bias, and our history books tend to talk most about the “successful” ones.

But let’s go back to the corporate world. As I wrote, the revolutions there are almost synonymous with large projects (but not each large project is a revolution). Large projects in my experience tend to be closely associated with phrases like “budget overrun”, “late delivery”, “failure”. At least, for incoming management team, as admitting mistakes, or even problems tends to be costly to one’s career. Welcome to the world of unreasonable commitment. Of course, the winners (and there are some, laws of probability will see to that), are feted, promoted and remembered. The reward is huge; the downside, limited. One can always leave the failing project before it turns into custard entirely, retaining the positive effect of large project on one’s CV and avoiding the failure. And it keeps consultants in gainful employment.

By now you’ve probably noticed that my attitude to revolutions is not very friendly. If I criticize, I’d better have some solution though, as being an armchair consultant/manager is easy, every bloke on the train can do it for a prime minister’s office, so why not something simpler?
I will leave the better way for the next post, but I want to finish this one on a more positive note. Revolutions can be good, and, indeed, in some cases are even necessary.

But not because of their stated objectives at the start. Revolutions are good when you entered a dead end, and need to destroy before you can build. It is a very efficient way of cleaning up the plate – just be aware that sometimes the plate will get broken in the process, and often you end up with a plate looking quite different than you thought you would.

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