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  • Writer's pictureMalcolm De Leo

The Politics of Innovation

Let's Define Innovation First

My favorite definition of innovation was given to be me by one of my colleagues when I was in charge of our global strategy at a very large company. This definition was plain, straightforward and scalable...

The definition of innovation: Creating something better by thinking and acting differently

I love this definition because it goes way beyond products which is what most people associate with innovation. As with most thing operational, people focus on the tangible output when thinking about creating new and wondrous things. They often forget to include other key elements of driving change. It can include how we produce things, the human processes we use, how we think or even how we interact with others. The point is this; this definition includes anything one can imagine which makes this a broad definition that can scale to most things.

In defense of Innovation...

When it comes to innovation, I never cease to hear people discuss how mushy it is. They often discuss how many of those in the innovation field make wild claims on what can be accomplished, but very few of them produce anything tangible. Why are innovators so easy to attack? I believe it stems from a variety of things, not the least of which is the issue that great innovation theory is too far away from the tangible results most corporate leaders look for and crave. Too many times we hear people at work say, "We are all in this to make money, right?" And this statement is usually follow up by a horrifying laugh that makes my skin crawl as the narrow minded financially focused imbecile who sits across from gains the upper hand; it's the line that allows them to ignore you.

But sometimes it's your fault they don't understand. And if we take a hard look at our innovation selves, we should be able to quickly admit those who want to do things different need to do two things.

  1. Be able to defend a defensible position

  2. Begin to know where we are in our quest to drive the change so we can focus on how to build a bridge between what we want those in operational mindsets to see and what we are proposing.

So how do we do this? We need a good model that frames up the key pieces to what I call the bridge to innovation. Below is a very high level way we can begin to think through things conceptually in order to be able to make real change happen.

Essentially what this visually highlights is a simple way to think about each thing an organization needs to make a great innovation live. And more importantly, it gives the innovator a way to think about where they are in the process to best understand what step is next and what is missing.

Theory: This is the foundation for big innovation. Innovation theory is where great ideas are born. Theory can add great impact to anything, because when the net is cast wide enough it can catch a lot of fish. The problem with theoretical constructs is that really have low dollar value until they are distilled and ultimately proven correct. And while they are usually one of the most exciting things for an innovator to work on, its limited business value can often keep them from ever really getting their biggest idea off the ground. Is it folly to be a person who loves theory? No! Theory is what brings many efforts into context and creates what are often the most powerful and scalable innovations. Without the theory of open innovation, the explosion in external partnering in the late 90's and 00's would have never happened. In this case it took theory to give people a way to think about the change. We must embrace innovation theory but we must be realistic about what it actually idea or concept that help explain big things but doesn't help produce much until acted upon.

Process: While more tangible, process does not always drive the bottom line. In this case, we are not talking about the process design to make a product, we are talking about business processes by which corporate scale is often created. As stated on this slide, process brings the needed order to things, but its downside is it often crushes the spirit of new ideas because "we have a process for doing this...and that is outside of it" is often a line that kills great ideas. We have all heard these dreaded words and they are usually involve the next level on the bridge (politics/culture), but without good process many innovations die in the one-off graveyard. It is also where many large corporate cultures hide from innovation. This is how they control new ideas by using process as a means to fail appropriately. But on the other side, when process is used well it can begin to make innovation theory repeatable, operational and even valuable. Where process shines is in its ability to bring people together. Process can be the birth of corporate collaboration (the needed order). What is probably most intriguing to me is the way a process can help those involved defocus the personal and collaborate more professionally as a team.

Politics/Culture: This sits at the top of the bridge for a very simple reason...politics and culture are the difference between succeeding and failing in the change game. Every company or group has a methodology for doing things and those within the culture often fight to lead and get their ideas implemented. As someone who often is focused on changing either the structure or culture, knowing how to move between the cracks is essential. If you don't, change will die quickly, if you do it can speed everything up substantially. Being a student of politics and culture in the innovation/change agent game is critical to helping you accomplish the innovation goals any organization has for itself. And frankly, politics/culture are very real, very powerful and very important as to whether the big idea that is part of the new process ever gets off the ground. Calling it out is the first step in helping enlighten the innovator to the real challenge one faces in bringing new market making ideas to life.

Organizational Structure: As you come down off the peak of innovation to organizational structure, you begin to come in contact with the more mundane parts of an organization. On the theory side you have process which is the needed order for how you drive change (the process). On the concrete side of things you have the organizational structure (the people). This can be a very difficult part of making innovation real. The what's your role and should you be doing this is where corporate turf wars live. On the other hand, knowing who does what can help the innovator focus on targeting the right part of the organism to affect change. Finding the right pressure point and then getting it do break ranks from the structure is a trick worth thinking about as you move forward as an innovator.

Functional Execution: Like the big thoughts of theory that have little impact on the bottom line, when you are executing innovation you are making it real. But at what expense? Often times when those who are great at making innovation tangible, often lose the vision of why it was created in the first place. This step can lead to a launch that delivers less that it should have because "the box" got it done, but did it get done right? Thinking ahead and planning for this is critical. It is where a scalable theory is critical, a good process for aligning people for the change is paramount, knowing which players can accelerate things, who needs to buy in so in the end the functional execution is done with excellence. And if you are really successful the theoretical construct has an impact on the functional execution so you not only get your idea to market but you affect how things get done so these big ideas continue to frequently get to market.

Where do we go from here?

All part of the bridge are needed to make it real. Start to far to the right you will be only incremental. Stay on the theory side and nothing gets done. All five parts are key...but that being said, the politics of innovation are where a person ultimately succeeds or fails in their quest to become an expert change agent.

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