Innovate or Die – Tactics #73-114 of 114

by Tom Peters

Skunk Works of InnovationIf the numbering in this post doesn’t seem to jive with yesterday’s, that’s because the list of 110 tactics seems to have grown in the course of the week; we’ve adjusted accordingly.

Adhocracy. Love It or Leave It.

  1. Projects “emerge.” Recall “spontaneous discovery process,” our item #3. Most projects invent themselves, rather than being the product of a formal planning process; and their growth into something big is also mostly organic. An effective culture of innovation is largely ad hoc—which drives many senior managers crazy. If they can’t “get it,” then they don’t belong.
  2. Leadership is on the fly. Things change rapidly. Teams are born and teams die. Yesterday’s leader is today’s follower – and vice versa. Developing “on the fly” leadership skills is no walk in the park. First, it must be perceived as a describable and learnable skill. (Hint: Women are better at this than men. Arguably, much better.)
  3. Plan-less-ness. If your organization chart “makes sense,” then you probably don’t have an innovative enterprise. Adhocracy requires letting go of linearity assumptions.

Skunkworks. Creating Parallel Universes. Invisible/Shadow Organizations.

  1. Parallel Universe/Unit within unit (School within a school). Big firms win in part through focus—which eventually means blinders that destroy them. The best way to innovate is often to create a Parallel Universe. It’s effectively a “shadow company” with its own staffing, its own culture, in fact. As business schools saw the 2-year resident MBA decline, for instance, they sensed a rise in demand for executive education. But professors often balked. Smart schools set up schools within schools using new assets to experiment with and deliver exec ed. In many cases, the school-within-a-school was eventually re-integrated, but only after it had enough muscle to resist the regnant culture; in some cases the “shadow organization” eclipsed the traditional organization.
  2. Skunkworks at all levels. Lockheed invented the term “Skunk Works;” the Lockheed Skunk Works was a small unit, in Burbank CA, that used a totally unconventional approach to developing essential military aircraft in record time with an astonishingly small group of astonishingly motivated people. The generic “skunkworks idea” is a variation on #79 above. That is, a “band of brothers and sisters” who are contrarian in nature, determined to go their own way and do it their own way, and who stink-up-the-central-culture as they pursue what they believe is an earthshattering dream. For example, Apple boss Steve Jobs “left” his own company and set up a Skunkworks, complete with pirate flag proudly flying, to develop the first Mac—it took dead aim at the heart of the company’s then-current (successful) product line.
  3. All Units/One-off projects. All units of all sizes should mount at least one “sorta Skunkworks,” that is, separated bands pursuing no-fit, low-fit projects. Such a “band” may be one person in a 6-person department.
  4. Centers of Excellence. A more formal approach to important innovations is setting up “centers of excellence.” For example, GlaxoSmithKline created 7 CEDDs, Centers of Excellence for Drug Discovery. Previously, GSK had used a huge functional organization to do its development work; now these CEDDs became self-sufficient units led by powerful project managers.
  5. Center of Excellence/Design. Design, writ large, is increasingly the route to product or service differentiation. Many companies are now beyond lip service, but a long way from fully incorporating design and experience creation into the heart of the company culture. One effective approach is a center of excellence with the avowed goal of nothing less than becoming a “hotbed” of global excellence – for example, Samsung followed this path and is giving Sony a run for its money.
  6. Center of Excellence/Women’s market. Tom rant. Creating products and services tailored to women’s desires is obvious as the end of one’s nose – and still honored in the breach. Especially when the magnitude of the effort adds up to strategic repositioning of the enterprise as a whole. My advice: Don’t mess around, get serious, win big.
  7. Center of Excellence/Boomer-Geezer market. Equivalent to #84 above. Market potential enormous. Will dominate for next quarter-century. Many “trying a few things.” But strategic re-alignment more aptly suits the magnitude of the opportunity. My advice: Don’t mess around, get serious, win big.
  8. Acknowledgement. This section is about acknowledging the limits of change in the regnant culture. Hence, creation of parallel, shadow, etc. organizations-within-the-organization becomes part of the “way we [necessarily must] do things around here.” There are no guarantees of success – but the ideas are worthy of serious consideration in small organizations as well as large ones.

Decentralization. First Among Equals.

  1. Decentralize. #1 innovation strategy. Big company. Pretty small company.
  2. Keep decentralizing.
  3. Decentralize “before it makes sense.”
  4. There is “decentralization,” and then there is Decentralization. Beware the difference between “sorta” decentralization – and the real deal, à la GE or Johnson & Johnson or PepsiCo. Decentralization is an attitude as much as the shape of an org chart.
  5. Form a cadre of formal “centralization fighters” with muscle. Beware ICD, Inherent Centralization Drift. (This is a top management task.)

The Team at the Top. Diverse or Dead. Cherish & Demand Disrespect.

  1. Top team risk profile. You are what you eat. You are where you’ve been. A successful commitment to innovation will only come when the top team, in every function, has a l-o-n-g history of unflinching commitment to innovation.
  2. Top team CQ/Curiosity Quotient. Innovators are unhappy if new ideas are not the currency of their everyday affairs. While execution is paramount, catholic interests must be permanently in evidence. Curiosity may well have killed the cat, but the lack thereof is the bane of successful longterm organizational vitality and, indeed, survival.
  3. Board composition/Innovation experience. Boards must ooze with experience in and commitment to innovation. (Most don’t.)
  4. Top team/Innovation coaches and mentors. Top team members in innovative enterprises take innovation personally – from the top to the bottom of the organization. Among other things, they act as mentors for innovation projects, including small ones three or four levels down in the organization.
  5. Women as leaders in project organizations. Women do better at adhocracy than men. Women do better with minimal hierarchy than men. Women do better with diversity than men. Women do better with shifting leadership that disobeys traditional ideas of power distribution than men.
  6. Top Team Calendar management. If you are an Innovation Obsessive, it will show up in unmistakable fashion on your Calendar. Calendars never lie. They are 100% accurate and visible indicators of your priorities. Micromanage them accordingly. Make your Innovation Obsession scream from your calendar! (There are few more powerful change levers.)
  7. Chief Forgetting Officer. Learning is a cakewalk. Forgetting is hell – particularly for “seasoned” successful executives. Therefore, the idea of “forgetting” per se is of perpetual strategic importance. Perhaps it should be formalized in the shape of a Chief Forgetting Officer?
  8. Diversity. Diversity. Diversity. (Rare in top teams! Fix it! Fast! It works! Especially when innovation is the goal!)
  9. Forward look. Beware offices (especially that of the Big Boss) and hallways and cafeterias awash in tributes to the past – even terrific ones like a Baldridge Award or a “product of the year award” from 1993, or even 2003; also dump the photos of you and famous “people of the past.” When Steve Jobs re-arrived at Apple he tossed out all the models of yesterday’s great “industry changing” computers – and replaced them with prototypes “from” tomorrow. Such “mere” “look and feel” stuff is potent medicine.
  10. Irreverence. Innovation is about changing course before it’s absolutely necessary. Hence excessive reverence for the past is Public Enemy #1. Establishing a “culture of irreverence” at the top is far easier said than done. But done it must be.

Commitment to Excellence in Innovation. Or Bust.

  1. Innovation is fun.
  2. Innovation is a glorious way of life.
  3. Innovation is scary. (But what is life without risk? Living death!)
  4. Innovation is enthusiasm.
  5. Innovation is passion.
  6. Innovation is a matchless source of pride.
  7. Innovation is life at the speed of light.
  8. Innovation is an “all hands” game.
  9. Innovation is big.
  10. Innovation is small.
  11. Innovation is an iPod.
  12. Innovation is a Tuf-E-Nuf hammer.
  13. Excellence in innovation.

We can’t all be Apple or Cirque du Soleil or Basement Systems Inc.
But we can damn well die trying.


Tom PetersTom Peters is the author of “In Search of Excellence” and twelve other international bestsellers, and a consultant, columnist, seminar lecturer, and more at the Tom Peters Company

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