Innovation is not a short game. It’s the art of playing the long game

Will this move the needle? What is the ROI? When will we see a return on our investment? How fast can you prove this will work?

No, I wasn’t at a BIG company meeting when I heard these questions. I was at a Startup Weekend this past weekend, and the people asking these questions were participants. Not the judges. What?!

As one of the original founders of SW in Tijuana, I get a lot of feedback from participants about their experience at SW. From what they think sucks, to what they like, to what they think would add more value, I hear it all. Besides the questions above, one particular group of participants (composed of a lawyer and a couple of MBA types) noticed that most of the people who come to pitch are of the “let’s create this because it would be cool” variety, not the “let’s do this because we’re going to make a lot of money”.

You would not be surprised if big company executives were making these types of remarks, or asking these types of questions. In big companies, being able to prove that your idea will make a significant impact on the bottom line is a criteria your idea must have if you want to move your project through the gauntlet.

In response to their input, to this particular group of participants, I had to be frank: we want unleash the visionary within. Not the pervasive short-term mindset.

While I haven’t heard too many far fetched ideas, at Startup Weekend, we’re aiming to unleash people. To remove fear of failure, while instilling a sense of “go for it!”. So, if we’d let people evaluate someone’s idea through financial criteria, we’d be doing to the opposite of what innovation is about.

We’d be aiming for short-term-ism.

Just imagine, if the original group of founders who started SW in Tijuana last year, thought that we’d done enough. We haven’t. There’s still a long way to go before I consider that we’ve done to be something significant. Just like any company, we have goals. And those goals are aligned to what Startup Weekend is about.

SW would not be a global movement if it didn’t aim for the long-term. Instead, it would be relegated to yet another corporate mechanism for idea vesting, and people would get just as depressed as they would while working at their typical 9 to 5 job.

Anyway, as I told another participant: any type of company, whether big or small, has to unleash people if they want to innovate. You can’t command and control it. Especially if you are not an innovator/leader yourself.

Now, as I’ve said before, if you’re the leader of your organization and are not an innovator, no worries. You can walk the talk by simply getting out of the way and letting your passionate employees do the innovating for your company.

You can’t spreadsheet yourself to innovation

Most of the people who I’ve gotten to know through Startup Weekend are of the “I believe there is a better way to do this” breed, and it is very likely that there are people who think the same way inside your company. You can’t find these people in a spreadsheet.

I’ve been adamant that big companies can use platforms like SW to unleash innovation. Not by requesting employees come back with an interesting idea, but by simply letting them collaborate with people outside the building! By doing so, you are giving them permission to fail and come back re-energized, as well as letting them know that, “hey what did you learn and what can we do about it?”.

You see, I don’t believe that the way to jumpstart innovation is through systems, but through courage. You can use all the systems in the world (lean startup and other innovation management frameworks), but your best bet is to create your own approach. And that, takes courage.