Nobody admits to being the innovation killer in a company. But we know they exist. Some these folks “dinosaurs that won’t change.” Others blame “the nay-saying ‘Dr. No’ middle managers.” But when you meet these people, they won’t admit to being innovation killers. They believe, deep in their hearts as well as in their everyday actions, that they are doing the right thing for the business. And that’s because they’ve been chosen, and reinforced, to be the Status Quo Police.
When a company starts it has no norms. But as it succeeds, in order to grow quickly it develops a series of “key success factors” that help it continue growing. In order to grow faster, managers – often in functional roles – are assigned the task of making sure the key success factors are unwaveringly supported. Consistency becomes more important than creativity. And these managers are reinforced, supported, even bonused for their ability to make sure they maintain the status quo. Even if the market has shifted, they don’t shift. They reinforce doing things according to the rules. Just consider:
Who can argue with the need to have quality? Total Quality Management (TQM,) Continuous Improvement (CI,) and Six Sigma programs all have been glorified by companies hoping to improve product or service quality. If you’re trying to fix a broken product, or process, these work pretty well at helping everyone do their job better.
But these programs live with the mantra “if you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it. Measure everything that’s important.” If you’re innovating, what do you measure? If you’re in a new technology, or manufacturing process, how do you know what you really need to do right? If you’re in a new market, how do you know the key metric for sales success? Is it number of customers called, time with customers, number of customer surveys, recommendation scores, lost sales reports? When you’re trying to do something new, a lot of what you do is respond quickly to instant feedback – whether it’s good feedback or bad.
The key to success isn’t to have critical metrics and measure performance on a graph, but rather to learn from everything you do – and usually to change. Quality people hate this, and can only stand in the way of trying anything new because you don’t know what to measure, or what constitutes a “good” measure. Don’t ever forget that Motorola pretty much invented Six Sigma, and what happened to them in the mobile phone business they pioneered?
All businesses exist to make money, so who can argue with “show me the numbers. Give me a business plan that shows me how you’re going to make money.” When you’re making an incremental investment to an existing asset or process, this is pretty good advice.
But when you’re innovating, what you don’t know far exceeds what you know. You don’t know how to meet unmet needs. You don’t know the market size, the price that people will pay, the first year’s volume (much less year 5,) the direct cost at various volumes, the indirect cost, the cost of marketing to obtain customer attention, the number of sales calls it will take to land a sale, how many solution revisions will be necessary to finally put out the “right” solution, or how sales will ramp up quarterly from nothing. So to create a business plan, you have to guess.
And, oh boy, then it gets ugly. “Where did this number come from? That one? How did you determine that?” It’s not long until the poor business plan writer is ridden out of the meeting on a rail. He has no money to investigate the market, so he can’t obtain any “real” numbers, so the business plan process leads to ongoing investment in the old business, while innovation simply stalls.
Under Akia Morita Sony was a great innovator. But then an MBA skilled in finance took over the top spot. What once was the #1 electronics innovator in the globe has become, well, let’s say they aren’t Apple.
No company wants to be sued, or take on unnecessary risk. And when you’re selling something, lawyers are pretty good at evaluating the risk in that business, and lowering the risk. While making sure that all the compliance issues are met in order to keep regulators – and other lawyers – out of the business.
But when you’re starting something new, everything looks risky. Customers can sue you for any reason. Suppliers can sue you for not taking product, or using it incorrectly. The technology could fail, or have negative use repercussions. Regulators can question your safety standards, or claims to customers.
From a legal point of view, you’re best to never do anything new. The less new things you do, the less likely you are to make a mistake. So legal’s great at putting up roadblocks to make sure they protect the company from lawsuits, by making sure nothing really new happens. The old General Motors had plenty of lawyers making sure their cars were never too risky – or interesting.
4. R&D or Product Development
Who doesn’t think it’s good to be a leader in a specific technology? Technology advances have proven invaluable for companies in industries from computers to pharmaceuticals to tractors and even services like on-line banking. Thus R&D and Product Development wants to make sure investments advance the state of the technology upon which the company was built.
But all technologies become obsolete. Or, at least unprofitable. Innovators are frequently on the front end of adopting new technologies. But if they have to obtain buy-in from product development to obtain staffing or money they’ll be at the end of a never-ending line of projects to sustain the existing development trend. You don’t have to look much further than Microsoft to find a company that is great at pouring money into the PC platform (some $9B, 16% of revenue in 2009,) while the market moves faster each year to mobile devices and entertainment (Apple spent 1/8th the Microsoft budget in 2009.)
5. Sales, Marketing & Distribution
When you want to protect sales to existing customers, or maybe increase them by 5%, then doing more of what you’ve always done is smart. So money is spent to put more salespeople on key accounts, add more money to the advertising budget for the most successful (or most profitable) existing products. There are more rules about using the brand than lighters at a smoker’s convention. And it’s heresy to recommend endangering the distribution channel that has so successfully helped increase sales.
But innovators regularly need to behave differently. They need to sell to different people – Xerox sold to secretaries while printing press manufacturers sold to printers. The “brand” may well represent a bygone era, and be of no value to someone launching a new product; are you eager to buy a Zenith electronic device? Sprucing up the brand, or even launching something new, may well be a requirement for a new solution to be taken seriously.
And often, to be successful, a new solution needs to cut through the old, high-cost distribution system directly to customers if it is to succeed. Pre-Gerstner IBM kept adding key account sales people in hopes of keeping IT departments from switching out of mainframes to PCs. Sears avoided the shift to on-line sales successfully – and revenue keeps dropping in the stores.
6. Information Technology
To make more money you automate more functions. Computers are wonderful for reducing manpower in many tasks. So IT implements and supports “standard solutions” that are cost effective for the historical business. Likewise, they set up all kinds of user rules – like don’t go to Facebook or web sites from work – to keep people focused on productivity. And to make sure historical data is secure and regulations are met.
But innovators don’t have a solution mapped out, and all that automated functionality is an enormously expensive headache. When being creative, more time is spent looking for something new than trying to work faster, or harder, so access to more external information is required. Since the solution isn’t developed, there’s precious little to worry about keeping secure. Innovators need to use new tools, and have flexibility to discover advantageous ways to use them, that are far beyond the bounds of IT’s comfort zone.
Newspapers are loaded with automated systems to collect and edit news, to enter display ads, and to “Make up” the printed page fast and cheap. They have automated systems for classified advertising sales and billing, and for display ad billing. And systems to manage subscribers. That technology isn’t very helpful now, however, as newspapers go bankrupt. Now the most critical IT skills are pumping news to the internet in real-time, and managing on-line ads distributed to web users that don’t have subscriptions.
7. Human Resources
Growth pushes companies toward tighter job descriptions with clear standards for “the kinds of people that succeed around here.” When you want to hire people to be productive at an existing job, HR has the procedures to define the role, find the people and hire them at the most efficient cost. And they can develop a systematic compensation plan that treats everyone “fairly” based upon perceived value to the historical business.
But innovators don’t know what kinds of people will be most successful. Often they need folks who think laterally, across lots fo tasks, rather than deeply about something narrow. Often they need people who are from different backgrounds, that are closer to the emerging market than the historical business. And pay has to be related to what these folks can get in the market, not what seems fair through the lens of the historical business. HR is rarely keen to staff up a new business opportunity with a lot of misfits who don’t appreciate their compensation plan – or the rules so carefully created to circumscribe behavior around the old business.
B.Dalton was America’s largest retail book seller when Amazon.com was founded by Jeff Bezos. Jeff knew nothing about books, but he knew the internet. B.Dalton knew about books, and claimed it knew what book buyers wanted. Two years later B.Dalton went bankrupt, and all those book experts became unemployed. Amazon.com now sells a lot more than books, as it continuously and rapidly expands its employee skill sets to enter new markets – like publishing and eReaders.
Innovation requires that leaders ATTACK the Status Quo Police. Everything done to efficiently run the old business is irrelevant when it comes to innovation. Functional folks need to be told they can’t force the innovators to conform to old rules, because that’s exactly why the company needs innovation! Only by attacking the old rules, and being willing to allow both diversity and disruption can the business innovate.
Instead of saying “this isn’t how we do things around here” it is critical leaders make sure functional folks are saying “how can I help you innovate?” What was done in the name of “good business” looks backward – not forward. Status Quo cops have to be removed from the scene – kept from stopping innovation dead in its tracks. And if the internal folks can’t be supportive, that means keeping them out of the innovator’s way entirely.
Any company can innovate. Doing so requires recognizing that the Status Quo Police are doing what they were hired to do. Until you take away their clout, attack their role and stop them from forcing conformance to old dictums, the business can’t hope to innovate.
Adam Hartung, author of “Create Marketplace Disruption“, is a Faculty and Board member of the Lake Forest Graduate School of Management, Managing Partner of Spark Partners, and writes for “Forbes” and the “Journal for Innovation Science.”