Controlling Innovation

by Jeffrey Phillips

Controlling InnovationI guess I’ll never fully understand the depth of concern that many management teams have around command and control, especially in an era of constant change. It seems that the more demands are placed on an organization to create new products and adapt to environmental change, the more resistance to that change is created and encouraged at mid and senior management levels. I understand that what’s “known” is comfortable and what’s unknown and new is uncomfortable, but at some point every firm has to create some new products or services or it will simply atrophy.

Recently I’ve witnessed what I’ll call “innovation in a bottle”. That is, a relatively successful innovation effort that the management team approved and blessed spawned interest in innovation across the organization. People in other business units and geographies wanted to know more, and learn more, about innovation and the successful work that was done. We on the project team viewed this as a good thing – a successful innovation effort being recognized as such. It was clear that many people wanted to understand the tools and process, and implement that kind of thinking in their lines of business.

Except that the management team viewed all of that energy and excitement with concern. Why was everyone so excited? Why was everyone so interested in innovation? Yes, the recently completed project had created very valuable insights and compelling new products and services, but the intent was for that group only. I think, in hindsight, that the management team intended not for a widespread innovation effort for the firm, but a more narrowly targeted new product discovery effort for one line of business. When that effort succeeded, and other lines of business wanted to learn more and duplicate the effort, the genie was at risk of leaving the bottle, and that caused concern for the management team. After all, if several lines of business started innovating, the amount of change in the business could be dramatic.

I don’t think most firms can be successful keeping innovation in a bottle – limiting it to very specific product lines or geographies. If the innovation work is done well, it will produce great results and those results will be noticed. Leaders in other organizations will want to copy the work and develop new products and services for their customers. Successful innovation is contagious, and to think the management team can limit innovation is part and parcel with command and control thinking. Yes, an executive team can control innovation, by limiting resources and stopping projects, but once the value of the methods and tools are seen, it will be hard to keep that lightning in a bottle. And probably counterproductive to do it as well.

Here’s the takeaway: If your firm seeks innovation and is willing to commit to do it well, expect that with any successful effort that more and more people within the firm will want to learn more and duplicate the work in their own departments. This should be a good thing, but can be viewed negatively by an executive team worried about control. What they don’t recognize is how fast the world is changing and how great the demand is for new products and services. I don’t think you can keep innovation in a bottle, and I doubt it’s a good idea to try.


Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of “Make us more Innovative”, and innovateonpurpose.blogspot.com.

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