Everyone understands that the bigger a company gets, the more difficult it is to create and nurture ideas. There are a number of reasons. The sheer size of the organisation mitigates against change – it is incredibly difficult to get everyone to understand a game-changing idea and align themselves behind it. You get a fragmented approach and the whole thing can get mired down in bureaucracy and finger-pointing.
Large organisations are inherently conservative, with people not wanting to rock the boat, while there is fierce rivalry between different divisions/departments which can lead to ideas being squashed if they seem to tread on someone else’s turf. There’s also a fine line between a strong company culture and having too inward looking a focus. Even successful companies such as Facebook have been accused of a lack of perspective – because they solely use (and love) their own products they assume they everyone else believes they are equally awesome. Step outside the organisation and your obsession is just a minor part of the lives of your customers.
The good news is that the majority of organisations do understand the need for a stream of fresh ideas. After all, the world today is dominated by companies such as Google, Facebook and Amazon that either didn’t exist twenty years ago, or were considerably smaller. Competition in every market is increasing and no-one wants to go the way of Nokia or Woolworths.
So how do you align your company to create the best forum to create ongoing ideas? I’m no management consultant, but I’ve seen a few attempts over the last twenty years and it boils down to three broad types:
1 Innovation silos
In many industries (such as pharmaceuticals), where innovation relies on expensive capital equipment it makes sense to create separate, concentrated, research labs. These have the intellectual muscle and resources but can suffer from their sheer size and distance from the business. They can then hit the same problems as any other big organisation, with divisional rivalry and static corporate culture. Alternatively businesses have focused innovation in standalone business units – either skunkworks operations that are locked away from the rest of the organisation, incubators that support promising ideas at arms length or even smaller companies that have been bought and are run as ideas factories. All of these can work, provided management stay true to their word not to meddle or demand fast results, but there’s still no connection with the wider business and its needs.
2 The campus
You break up your monolithic organisation into a campus style environment, with different divisions occupying their own buildings, but close together. Splitting into smaller teams is good for creativity, and you get the economies of scale of having everyone on a single, but large, site. However the ability to cross-pollenate between groups can be limited – unless you happen to bump into someone over lunch you might be completely in the dark about what other sections of the company are working on.
3 The college
What I think is really interesting about the campus model is that it deliberately mimics the university campus structure. While this makes for a good working environment, it doesn’t help spread ideas. So I think companies need to look at a more collegiate model, similar to that of universities like Cambridge. You have two allegiances/bases – your division (essentially your college) and your actual project (your faculty). So you get the chance to mix with people from other divisions and collaborate on joint projects. Some people may find it disorienting, but if projects are scheduled to last 2-3 years the goal is never that far away.
Innovation is vital in every industry, and the size and structure depends on the sector and the market each company operates in. But I think it is time for more organisations to look at the college structure if they want to nurture and develop a stream of ideas that take their business forward over the long term.
I had the chance this week to see an old copy of BT’s Technology Journal, published at the time of the millennium. To give you an idea of how long ago the year 2000 actually was, the cover trumpeted an interactive version of the journal on CD-ROM that delivered a multimedia experience.
What was most interesting were a series of technology timelines, across areas as diverse as health, home and entertainment that predicted what the world would be like in 2020 and beyond. By now (2013) we should all be watching 3D without glasses, using robots in the kitchen and the police will be equipped with phasers (as seen in Star Trek). Looking forward by 2015 we’ll be able to pleasure ourselves with the Orgasmatron (though I’m sure that was in a 1960s Woody Allen film).
It is really easy to laugh at predictions made 13 years ago, particularly as they spectacularly failed to imagine things such as tablet computing and Facebook which have changed our lives and disrupted industries. I remember Tomorrow’s World back in the 1970s happily demonstrating the jet packs we’d be using to get around by the turn of the millennium. I’m still waiting for mine to arrive.
The reasons that futurologists get it spectacularly wrong are two-fold. Firstly, progress is not linear. Moore’s Law may apply to computers, but not to everything. Creating artificial organs does not mean that we’ll have artificial brains ten years later. Research simply doesn’t work like that and is much more stop start. Even now, eureka moments can move things forward rapidly or development can hit a dead end.
The second, and most important factor, is about user acceptance – and this is where startups and innovators need to pay most attention. Just because technology can do something doesn’t mean that people will want to pay money for it. I’ve talked at length about how startups need to cross the chasm and create products that the mass market wants, rather than just early adopters. This is where a lot of the innovations predicted by BT (and plenty of others) fail. There simply isn’t a compelling reason for people to either change their behaviour and/or fork out significant amounts of money to take a risk on a new innovation. Understanding consumer behaviour and designing products to meet their needs is vital if new innovations are going to make it out of the lab and into the mainstream. Yes, we can create 3D TVs that don’t need glasses, but the cost is currently prohibitive. We could probably even build jet packs, but the legal framework isn’t there to control their usage.
So the lesson is clear – innovation, blue sky research and predicting the future is all very well, but think about the problem that you are trying to solve. Is there actually one? Do people care enough to change their behaviour? Will they pay money for it? Otherwise you’ll be left with a warehouse full of rusting robots as consumers spend their cash elsewhere. Though I do think the Orgasmatron probably has a decent chance of success…………