Corporate innovation: why bother?
Updated: Jul 24
The chest-high sea of cubicles pooled out in every direction as if I were standing in a lake. It was more like a hive; square after square buzzed with purpose and brainpower. This was home to a huge company’s celebrated innovation accelerator, with dozens of exciting new projects championed by hundreds of mold-breaking employees.
There was, of course, a foosball table. A ping pong table too. Those were mandatory props for any group claiming to be “innovative,” as was free caffeine. Food was harder to find. Those unwilling to suffer the breakroom roach-coach marched in small tribes to the three or four decent restaurants nearby, security badges flapping at their waists.
There was a Standford MBA, an MIT Ph.D., a former Navy Officer and a Princeton Ph.D.; and those were just in the cubicles I could physically touch from where I stood. Some had been entrepreneurs and all had done at least some time in the corporate machine before elbowing their place to the innovation table. Now in the corporate innovation accelerator they worked tirelessly to pioneer their visions of what the company’s next billion-dollar business might be. Small fortunes were in play every minute. Rogue warriors thrived or perished by their wits, inspiration and perspiration. Keyboards clicked. Whiteboards danced. PowerPoint slides of transcendent epiphany flickered through the air like Fall leaves on a windy day.
Seven years later I stood in the exact same place, but the picture had changed. The building was now dark, in the middle of the day, except for sunshine through sparse windows and a couple fluorescent lights in one corner of the building. The foosball table was mysteriously on its side and the ping pong table had a bunch of cardboard on it. If I had to guess, I’d say there were only nine people in the building, but you couldn’t hear or see them except for chance encounters at the coffee machine or the occasional swing of a restroom door. Looking into a cubicle as I passed; an employee was posting his resume online. It was a ghost town, and despite being indoors it wouldn’t have seemed out of place for a tumbleweed to wander down the hallway.
What the hell happened here? If you’ve ever been to an actual ghost town, the rubble of a once-great building or the ruins of an ancient civilization, you know how it feels to be haunted by this question. There’s quiet sadness in the shards of broken dreams. You can almost hear the whispers.
Somewhere between 70% - 90% of new projects launched by corporate innovation groups typically fail, depending on the company or industry. It’s been this way for as long as anyone can remember, regardless of whether you’re Steve Jobs or Thomas Edison. Most survivors tend to be incremental innovations that are squarely in-the-box, not out of it. The most promising out-of-the-box projects are overwhelmingly canceled after a few years or become so blunted by peer political interests that they lose their edge entirely. With odds like these, who needs enemies?
Why do we bother? If you have a stable corporate job somewhere in the mothership, why risk it for a zany innovation boondoggle that could sidetrack your career, tarnish your reputation, burn out your passions in a flash of futility and possibly leave you broke?
I’ve asked this question to corporate innovators over the decade. Typical responses include “it’s exciting to start something new,” “you get to impact a whole business rather than just a tiny part of it,” “you can get experience it would take much longer to realize inside the mainstream company,” and “I want to feel what it’s like to start a billion-dollar business.”
Those are all real answers; that is, I believe them. However these soft reasons employees give for leaving the relatively hard career stability of mainstream corporate jobs aren’t enough. These reasons appeal to a minority of employees – the renegades and mavericks. There has to be a little Han Solo inside you. Most employees (and senior managers) are a little too pragmatic to explore deep space in the Millennium Falcon when there’s nothing particularly wrong with building a peaceful civilization on nearby Endor.
But there’s another reason, I think; a reason that appeals to pragmatists and idealists alike. Yet nobody mentions this reason, perhaps because it may seem a little unseemly or tacky. So I’ll mention it, and I think you should too. Loudly.
If you’re part of an innovation team that wins big, really big, you can milk that win for the rest of your career. It can be the corporate equivalent of tenure. Ever been in a meeting where people go around the room and introduce themselves? Everyone sounds generic until one person says something like “Hi, I’m Lisa, and my team started the Crest Whitestrips business at P&G.” All of a sudden there’s a half-second pause, eyebrows raise and someone says “wow” before introductions continue. Respect. Or maybe they helped start the iPod at Apple, Post-It’s at 3M, Viagra at Pfizer. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is they were part of a huge success, and now they’re the most interesting person in the room.
Ever noticed someone in your company who’s always hovering around interesting projects and is clearly high ranking, but you have no idea what they actually do? Let’s call this person Ol’ Gil, and it’s as if Ol’ Gil never does anything at all, but for some reason he’s been at the company since the stone-age and will never get fired. Then, when you casually ask a coworker “what does Ol’ Gil do anyway?” you’re told he helped start the Silly Putty business at Crayola. You pause for a half-second, your eyebrow raises, you say “wow.” You see Ol’ Gil in an entirely new light. Respect. Then the trance breaks and you think to yourself “cool, but wasn’t that, like, 100 years ago?”
Damn right; and if that isn’t a great reason to become a corporate innovator, I don’t know what is. Whether you stay at the same company or move to another (at a significant salary and org. chart boost, in most cases), you’ll never be seen the same way again. Where many fail, the honey for winners can be sweet.
We live short lives. One strategy is to take small steps. You may not get very far, you may not be remembered, and you might get laid off anyway, but there’s less chance of slipping day-to-day. Another strategy is, every now and then, to take a giant leap. If you fall, dust yourself off and get up again. If you land, you’ll find yourself way ahead. Regardless of whether you’re a pragmatist or an idealist, there are tradeoffs for all choices. It isn’t about how bold or meek your career is, but how to establish the right mix of both. If you’re too bold, you could fly off the rails. Yet if you’re too meek, you’ll run ragged on the corporate treadmill for decades and barely move an inch. Does your career have the right mix? What about your life?
100 Years from now nobody will remember the drones with stable, safe corporate jobs – not even their own families. When you hear your great-great grandfather was a bookkeeper at a paper company, it’s charming but forgettable trivia. But if you learned your great-great-great grandfather invented the coffee grinder, you’d mention it to random baristas all the time. You are the ancestor of your unborn kin and are responsible for making your story worth telling.
These days we don’t have many heroes with swords, battle armor and a reputation for sacking cities. Instead, in the corporate world, we have rockstar innovators. Sometimes they’re called “Founders,” other times they’re just the ones who “launched the… (insert big win here).” They’re remembered. Their careers are rewarded. They build the walls that protect more timid bureaucrats for generations. Without them there would be no castle in the first place, and tomorrow’s castles won’t build themselves. Yes, it’s good to have a stable corporate job, but somewhere along the line it was an innovator who made it possible.
That’s why we bother.