Last week I looked at the topic of encouraging innovation, with a focus from a leadership position. The truth is that each of us within a corporate team can bring about innovative change, and this is the notion behind intrapreneurship. Braden Kelley, in his recent article “Innovation: A Team Sport,” highlighted a problem that exists that isn’t often talked about – the fact that team members are often looked at as interchangeable. The truth is, everyone is different in their skills, capabilities and desires. And it is these differences that typically make teams stronger. Just look at The Avengers!
Your teammates on your school projects or in your day jobs are just as different from you as Thor is from The Hulk. Take one away and the team is not as strong. But the spreadsheets where headcount decisions are made do not show that. In fact, you can plop a new human in Excel’s C28 for half the cost if you go 1/4 of the way around the world to hire them. Never mind that the communication costs will be twice as much. You see, humans are not commodities like gold and money. They are valuable stocks with different capabilities and potentials. As a teammate or manager, you must leverage these different capabilities to move ahead.
That, my friends, is the beauty of intrapreneurship. An entrepreneur gambles his life savings on an idea attached to a hope or a dream. The intrapreneur rides on that wave with the resources at his/her disposal and tries to take them all to new heights. No one is asking you to invent the next light bulb. But given the resources you have, what novel approach to combining them will create something new and valuable?
I recently read Gartner’s report, “New CIO Responsibilities in a Digital Business World“, and was intrigued by their encouragement to nourish the “three subcultures within IT”. They defined these subcultures as:
- Operator (linear IT) — focused on keeping things running and improving, based on defined requirements where the priority is stability and reliability
- Innovator (nonlinear IT) — focused on creating new business value and capabilities where the need for speed, innovation and exploring fuzzy requirements are valued
- Guardian (leadership) — focused on ensuring the long-term success of the business, staying industrial strength while being ready for the future, balancing innovation with risk, ensuring a strategic long-term focus and investing in the capabilities required for the future
The standout in this list is the call out of “innovator” as a group that is focused on exploring the areas where a lot of ambiguity exists and is valued. Innovation is getting a lot of play in the IT field, but it is also getting stifled by the frameworks for risk reduction that IT values so much. Old school and new school companies alike including AT&T, Adobe, and LinkedIN are establishing new organizational models to encourage innovation via both financial empowerment and political empowerment. This suggests that innovation is not possible at the rate desired within the other two subcultures, operations and leadership.
Like many problems in this space, I believe it is a problem of structure. I also believe there are many structures that would succeed that do not result in a completely external group being formed. Google and other companies made famous in the last decade their application of 20% time — that is, 1/5 of the work week is designated to personally identified projects and the other 4 are dedicated to the initiatives that have been assigned. The problem here is that if you are within an operations group, much of your time is dictated by external forces, not planned project work. The line is further blurred when you look at DevOps groups that are responsible for new development as well as ongoing operational support.
There is not a one-size-fits-all response to encourage innovation. Organizations are going to have to look at their internal structures, their industry, and all the forces being placed on those walls to determine how best to respond. But they must not overlook their existing talent, and should find ways to include them in the innovation process (ideation, gate reviews, etc.) even if they cannot be dedicated full time. At the same time, the existing talent must be open to new ideas, products and methods that may run counter to “the way we’ve always done things.”