It’s hard to get excited about incremental ideas

Most of what is called innovation is incremental in nature. Meaning, an improvement on something that already exists. This is innovating within a known box. Microsoft is company that is the poster boy for this type of behavior. It’s a shame because they invest a lot of money on R&D but not much of its inventions become innovations.

Except for the XBOX and Kinect, in the last decade or so, many of its products have been plain vanilla copies of other products that reached the market first. Why the XBOX? Because it was a product of intrapreneurship within Microsoft.

Right now intrapreneurship is a hot topic and a rich source of potential advantage for corporations. In a recent Innochat session we touched on some of the points about intrapreneurship: Being an intrapreneur.

Large consultancies have also taken notice, as recent study by Accenture about developing an entrepreneurial culture found that:

  • Nine in 10 respondents say an entrepreneurial attitude can lead to new ideas that promote growth in a tough economy.
  • Nearly half the respondents believe management support is critical, but only one in five believes their company delivers it.
  • More than half the respondents have tried pursuing an entrepreneurial idea within their company despite the perceived lack of support.
  • Eighty-five percent of respondents say their ideas have been focused on internal improvements rather than external, and 98 percent claim their ideas, which were implemented, have been successful.
  • More than one in four respondents seem to have avoided pursuing an idea due to concerns about negative consequences, and three in four say their company rewards an entrepreneurial idea only if it works.
  • More than 60 percent believe collaborative thinking, which corporations can readily support, is the best source for new ideas.
  • Among the self-employed respondents, 93 percent pursued ideas with their previous employers, but 57 percent say their company was not very supportive.
  • There is some good news too: 55 percent say their companies are better at supporting entrepreneurialism than they were five years ago.

In my opinion, we’ve got ways to go before we begin to have entrepreneurial cultures. When intrapreneurship happens in spite of existing corporate structures, it’s called rebellion.

Here’s an example…

At the beginning of the year I had a meeting with the people who run one of the largest (if not the largest) painting-everything providers in all of Mexico. Not only was the President talking about innovation, he was bragging about how innovative the company had been throughout the years, including all the itsy-bitsy details, and how in the last few years they’ve lost their edge.

Here’s what’s interesting: for all the talk about innovation in his company, nothing struck me as transformational. A lot of it was “first ones in Mexico to do this”, and a lot of those ideas are a decade or more old. So what’s the rub?

I have a good idea why they’ve lost their edge…

Innovation is a hot debated topic, you know this. But as I’ve written before, the only silver bullet for continuous innovation is a culture that doesn’t even mention “innovation”; it lives it. If this particular company’s culture were innovative, you wouldn’t have had something like the following happen:

At one point in the meeting, the President mentioned that he wanted his employees to see themselves as entrepreneurs. And that he knew that lower level employees don’t know how to distinguish between something that is innovative and something that isn’t.

I suggested a few things, that started a chain reaction of ideas from the rest of the people in the room. A lot of these people were clearly getting excited at the prospect of doing things differently, but then something very telling happened…

When pressed about redefining what business they are in, the President of the company neglected to accept suggestions from his executive team and maintained the position that they should stay focused on the current model, as when the company had started; that’s how it should stay.

Ironically, and the reason I was called in, I was there to talk about how I might help them develop a more “intuitive” innovation capability. Well, I left that meeting believing that was not going to happen. You see, the ideas the President of this particular company was relating to me were in the “incremental” type of innovation: lots of best practices with their own twist on it.

Even the employees were questioning if those ideas were a big deal!

Based on my conversations and understanding of trends, I got the feeling that they are not looking at the bigger picture. For example, there are a few things that I’m leaving out for privacy concerns, but an important bit is that the employees who have primary contact with customers are Gen Y.

This is important because your workforce is changing! As millennials,  we crave a workplace that fosters innovation. You say you want employees to take initiative and come to you with their ideas but if you don’t let them “go for it”, and act as a bottleneck; it is the same as rejecting them. Do you believe they’ll keep suggesting ideas? There’s only so much someone will do to stay restless.

As many other businesses, they are missing a key piece of the innovation equation: making new mistakes to develop insights into the future.

Enthusiasm breeds innovativeness

Consultants like to say that there are different types of innovation outcomes: incremental and radical. Some pundits believe that incremental improvements should not be considered an innovation. Frankly, I don’t like distinguishing between incremental and radical innovation, but it is very difficult to do so because some increments turn into transformations.

The only thing that matters is this: There is only so much increments you can produce from an old model. Most organizations optimize themselves into irrelevance because they don’t know when to jump to the next curve. 

And that’s why it’s hard for employees, and customers, to get excited about increments. It becomes a “process” that lulls organizations to sleep; literally. Work becomes repetitive and predictable and people turn into automatons completely devoid of passion. In situations like these, who really is “all in”?

With that said, the way to recognize incremental ideas is very simple: they are a sure bet and nobody gets excited about them.

How then, do you get people excited to come up and work on non-incremental ideas?

Remember: the key ingredients to accelerate innovation in any environment are freedom, challenge and support. So, to transform your culture, encourage employees to pursue their passions inside of work.

And get out of their way!