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  • Thomas Thurston

Is your company anti-innovative?

Updated: Jul 24, 2023

It’s been said that launching a new innovation from within a big company is like getting a bill through Congress. You spend a ton of time getting votes from peers whose buy-in is critical, officially or unofficially. You have to raise money, and defend it, over and over again. Promises are made, and broken, along the way. Then, even if you’re successful, you can end up with something that looks almost nothing like what you wanted in the first place.

At the heart of this struggle is a tension between what it takes to win in the market, and what it takes to get something your corporate bureaucracy will keep supporting. In a perfect world these two things are aligned, but in reality they often aren’t.

For example, once in a while executives demand new, disruptive, big ideas from innovation teams. “Where’s my next billion dollar business?”  Yet when those out-of-box ideas start coming in the door, they’re immediately measured by in-the-box standards.

This process is both implicit and explicit. Questions like “why should our company do this, as opposed to someone else?” or “how is this innovation strategic to the parent company?” seem reasonable, but they kick off a series of compromises that can break whatever fragile novelty might be central to a big innovation’s success. Put simply, what’s good for a parent company isn’t necessarily good for a new innovation, or vice versa. Worse yet, sometimes an innovation should be funded precisely because it’s bad for the parent company, but a good idea anyway. Once upon a time it would have been good for Blockbuster to acquire Netflix, leave it alone, and let it fight head-to-head with its legacy rental business. Had it done so, today Blockbuster would be… well… Netflix, instead of bankrupt.

When forced to choose between what’s good for an innovation and what’s good for its parent company, the parent company usually wins. This bias can systematically cripple or kill most of those big ideas executives so desperately want. Worse yet, with assembly line precision this bias results in projects the parent company loves, but the market doesn’t. This is where the most expensive, humiliating, colossal failures tend to come from.

I tried to capture this phenomenon in the graphic below.  The black line is how exciting a new innovation may be to markets and customers. At first, corporate innovators can have keen insights into customers, markets and technologies that let them see amazing opportunities. In the beginning these inspirations are often pure and market-focused, based on what’s likely to win, even if it doesn’t fit with the parent company’s processes, culture or internal politics.

The blue line is how well the innovation fits within its parent company. Over time, as the innovator tries to marshal support and funding, compromises are made as the parent company demands better alignment with its mainstream processes and mandates. Tragically, innovators who stick to their guns often don’t get funded because their innovations aren’t seen as corporate-enough (although it’s usually referred to as ‘strategic’ or ‘aligned’). Meanwhile those willing to compromise and shift their businesses in the corporate direction move ahead. In this way, many of the the best insights are routinely weeded out while a lot of mediocre or bad ideas – albeit corporate-friendly ones – keep going.

The dominant way corporate innovations are evaluated, grown and funded isn’t neutral – it’s systemically biased. So when priorities conflict, in ways that are big or tiny, there’s a biased drumbeat towards harmony with corporate bureaucracy rather than innovation fitness in the marketplace. This is both a deep problem and a flabbergasting irony; left unchecked, the default bias of corporate innovation is anti-innovative.


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