Innovation and Internal Competition

rodneyThere are many elements critical to a successful innovation program, such as focus, a good process, and resources. Many organizations put all of these elements in place, but they still end up failing. Interestingly, their programs end up creating worthwhile projects, but the projects never materialize or are rapidly killed.  What happened?

When this occurs, many times it’s because the innovation teams worked in a vacuum from the rest of the organization.  (I immediately think of this clip from the movie Back to School with Rodney Dangerfield  In this clip, Rodney talks with a business professor about how to start a new company).  By this, I mean that they didn’t consider the “real way” that things work in the organization and believe that the sheer brilliance of their ideas and projects would cut through any organizational issues.  In most cases they are wrong.  For the most part, large organizations are built to kill ideas–they can’t help it.  There is competition from existing projects, political connections, important customer issues, and legal areas.  New ideas can easily be quashed by any of these, so it’s important to figure out a way to navigate through the organization in order to bring these ideas to fruition.

One of the best ways to mitigate many of the problems you’ll encounter with internal competition is to get a sponsor.  Sponsors have several characteristics:

  • They have political clout–usually higher level executive
  • Have experience in an area important for your project
  • Can pull resources
  • Provide sound advice

Sponsors will help drive success for a project by providing these valuable assets.   They also will help you with the 80-20 rule, or in other words, they know how to get the most out of the organization with a minimal amount of effort.  Think about something simple that you want to do, like plant a garden.  You may have come to the conclusion that a garden would provide your family with lots of benefits, such as low cost, organic, and fun.  If you’ve never done this before, there are a couple of ways to go about it.  You could go to the library, local nurseries, and the internet and research the best practices for planting. You’d try and learn the best times, best plants, and best cultivation techniques.   Without a mentor, you’d most likely make some mistakes, i.e., planting too early, picking the wrong varieties, or not using the right fertilizer.  However, if you talked to your neighbor (who has had a successful garden for the past 10 years), he’d be able to tell you exactly what to do.  He’d provide helpful advice on the best things to plant so that you’d get the best yield, avoid bugs, and prevent rabbits from eating everything.  He’d know where to get the best deals on supplies, and he’d probably have helpful tools for you to use, like a rototiller.  The best part is that you’d learn all of this information is a short amount of time, and you’d get someone who would help you through the entire process.

The same is true for an organization.  A sponsor can help you quickly navigate all of the issues that you’ll encounter and provide you with advice and resources to get to your end goal.  Sponsors usually have “skin in the game” as well, and will benefit from your success.  They may be the ultimate manager of the product you develop, or it might be their customer’s problem that gets solved.  They’ll be able to shield your project from others, and insure that it moves forward, in essence, they’ll mitigate the competition.

There are two ways to go about finding a sponsor.  First, you can sell your idea to potential sponsors, hoping that one of them will adopt your project.  Second, you can talk with potential sponsors about what issues that they need solved and try to innovate for their success.  I believe that the second way is easier because you’re helping them with their problems, and the “sale” is easier.  The downside is that your ideas may not be 100% yours, and you’ll have to be flexible to make it happen.  However, if you’re successful with this approach, then you’ll gain more and more success, and have more control over what you create.  Think about teaching one of your kids to drive.  The first few times, you make certain that you have lots of control over the situation by picking the location and time.  However, as they progress, you become more comfortable with their decisions, and eventually send them on their own.