Companies don’t innovate, people do.

by Mike Shipulski

Big companies hold tightly to what they have until they feel threatened by upstarts, and not before. They mobilize only when they see their sales figures dip below the threshold of tolerability, and no sooner. And if they’re the market leaders, they delay their mobilization through rationalization. The dip is due to general economic slowdown that is out of our control, the dip is due to temporary unrest from the power structure change in government, or the dip is due to some ethereal force we don’t yet fully understand.

The strength of big companies is what they have, and they do what it takes only when what they have is threatened. Once they’re threatened, watch out. The truth is, big companies don’t make change, people within big companies make change.

Start-ups want to change everything. They reject what they don’t have and threaten the status-quo at every turn. And they’re always mobilized to grow sales.  Every new opportunity brings an opportunity to change the game. In a ready-fire-aim way, every phone call with a potential customer is an opportunity to dilute and defocus. Each new opportunity is an opportunity to create a mega business and each new customer segment is an opportunity to pivot.

The strength of startups is what they don’t have. No loyalty to an existing business model, no shared history with other companies, and no NIH (not invented here). Once they focus and decide to converge on an important market segment, watch out. The truth is, startups don’t make change, people within startups make change.

When you work in a big company, if your idea is any good the established business units will try to stomp it into oblivion because it threatens their status quo. In that way, if your idea is dismissed out of hand or stomped on aggressively, you are likely onto something worth pursuing. If you’re told by the experts “It will never work” that’s a sign from the gods that your idea has strong merit and deserves to be worked.

It always comes down to people. The person with the idea can either pack it in or push through the intellectual inertia of company success. To be clear – it’s their choice. If they pack it in, the idea never sees the light of day. But if they decide to push ahead (despite the fact they’re not given the tools, time, or training to build a prototype and show it to company leadership) your company has a chance to reinvent itself.

What causes and conditions have you put in place for your innovators to choose to do the hard work of making a prototype?

When you work at a startup, the objective is to dismantle the status quo, and all ideas are good ideas. In that way, your idea will be praised and you’ll be urged to work on it. If you’re told by the experts “That could work.” it does not mean you should work on it. Since resources are precious, focus is mandatory. The person with the idea can either try to convert their idea into a prototype or respect the direction set by company leadership.

To be clear – it’s their choice. If they work on their new idea they dilute the company’s best chance to grow. But if they decide, despite their excitement around their idea, to align with the direction set by the company, your startup has a chance to deliver on its aggressive promises.

What causes and conditions have you put in place for your innovators to choose to do the hard work of aligning with the agreed upon approach and direction?

When no one’s looking, do you want your people to try new ideas or focus on the ones you already have? When given a choice, do you want them to focus on existing priorities or blow them out of the water? And if you want to improve their ability to choose, what can you put in place to help them choose wisely?

To be clear – a formal set of decision criteria and a standardized decision-making process won’t cut it here. But that’s not to say decisions should be unregulated and unguided. The only thing that’s flexible and powerful enough to put things right is the good judgment of the middle managers who do the work. “Middle managers” is not the best words to describe who I’m talking about. I’m talking about the people you call when the wheels fall off and you need them put back on in a hurry.

You know who I’m talking about. In startups or big companies, these people have a deep understanding of what the company is trying to achieve, they know how to do the work and know when to say “give it a try” and when to say “not now.” When people with ideas come to them for advice, it’s their calibrated judgement that makes the difference.

Calibrated judgement of respected leaders is not usually called out as a make-or-break element of innovation, growth and corporate longevity, but is just that.  And good judgement around new ideas are the key to all three. It always comes down to a choice – do those ideas die in the trenches or are they kindly nurtured until they can stand on their own?

No getting around it – it’s a judgment call whether an idea is politely put on hold or accelerated aggressively. And no getting around it, those decisions make all the difference.

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shipulskiMike Shipulski brings together people, culture, and tools to change engineering behavior. He writes daily on Twitter as @MikeShipulski and weekly on his blog Shipulski On Design.