Innovation Has To Be Hardwired Into the System


"So, did you learn anything about innovation from your last assignment?” a client asked me.

“Don’t get me started,” I told him!

For the rest of the lunch we discussed some of these thoughts I had learned about how to “hard wire” innovation into a company.

From my recent experience, innovative companies require three things:

First, the company needs a clear and (almost impossible) mission.

Second, the company needs to have a tool/program/product that they believe will make the world a better place and substantially different place.

Third, the company needs a CEO and a team of Leaders who can relentlessly drive systems that will deliver on innovation .

These three “tent poles” do not represent all that is needed for success. They represent necessary, but not sufficient requirements, needed to create a system that will be innovative.

To succeed, it will take these three things, plus an executive team who can clearly, continuously and consistently communicate the mission and build systems to drive innovation.

It will take scientists or creatives who can build the tools, programs or products –These key people must understand innovation and be rewarded for achieving it.  Stagnation is intolerable for innovation.

It will take a systematic building of a sales force that intimately understands the mission and the products and can advocate with an almost religious zeal for the Company.  The sales people need to be chosen carefully for their devoted commitment and rewarded for their success.

Actually, every part of the Company from the supply chain to finance to communications to the warehouse to human resources to administration has to have that same zeal.

Building that three “tent pole” system based on mission and product and leadership sounds easy.

But if it were, we’d see a lot more innovation going on.

Most companies forget to fine tune and calibrate every part of their internal systems (hiring, compensating, communicating, promoting, structuring, and building the IT infrastructure, etc.) to support innovation. An innovative company sets up a system around these three tent poles that is agile, that allows failure and pushes toward building, measuring, learning and pivoting (thanks to Reis for his insights!)

Here are two examples of how I’ve seen these innovation “tent poles” were implemented in a Company recently.

Make the Mission (Almost) Impossible

A friend who runs a recruiting firm called and asked me if I would help by “keeping things together” at a medically based company while the recruitment firm worked to find a replacement for a recently departed executive.

Within 24 hours I was hired as an interim executive.  I was intrigued by the company’s speed and approach to decision making (both the CFO and the CEO “tag-teamed” me). Combined, they represented the agility that is just a dream for other companies.

But it was the Company’s mission that really stunned me.

The CEO of this company asked me if “touching two million lives was a lot.”

I answered “yes.”

Wrong answer.

There are more than 7 billion people in the world, and the CEO had a mission to touch a percentage of the population that I thought was breathtaking.  “Let’s take our products to six million people.”

My brain told me it was impossible.  The CEO had the energy and vision to make me believe that just maybe it could be done.

Does the impossible have to involve saving lives?

Of course not.

It can be about making people “happy.” Disneyland’s “impossible” was not at all about saving lives – but it was about making “magical moments.” Walt’s mission was (almost) as impossible and compelling.

Figure Out What Motivates People to Do the Impossible? 

Let me tell you a story that will help you see why people will sacrifice to do the impossible.

On my first day at the Company, I needed some help setting up my computer.  I called the Information Technology Group and within the same amount of time that it would take for a police officer to answer a 911 call, an IT guru appeared at my desk.

As he tinkered, I made conversation.   “How long have you worked here?  What brought you here?”

He stopped what he was doing and turned to me and said,
“You need to know that you are working for a miraculous company.”

He went on…

“A few years ago my wife and I feared that we could not have a child.  I found a doctor who gave me some of the products that this Company creates and I am now the proud father of a 3 year old.”

When you work for a Company where employees believe the product can perform miracles, an achievable mission won’t do.  The mission has to be (almost) impossible because then employees will be driven to do their best — even if they are in IT or logistics or customer service.

Make Tough Leadership Calls

The Leadership needs to act in concert.  It is confusing to the human system of a company when the leadership does not agree – or worse – when they disagree on key points.  Leaders must exemplify with a single voice a zeal for innovation. And they must support one another during the failures that will occur on the way to building systems that support new paradigms.  As one executive told me, “we will let you make mistakes, but we won’t let you fail.”  The CFO spent hours (starting at 7 pm!) with me translating currency so compensation for a hiring decision would be accurate


Three “tent poles”?

Too easy?

Absolutely correct.

However, the difficulty for a company is to set up integrated systems and functions that support innovation around those three “tent poles”.

Innovative company set up a system that is agile, that allows failure and pushes toward building, measuring and pivoting on goals (thanks to Reis for his insights!)

The Company I worked for integrated the scientists into the sales group. The Chief Science Officer said, “I LOVE our sales people!”

A normal company might suggest that this integration of science with sales would constitute a waste of time.  This Company had a CSO who “loved the sales force” so he believed that every new step in creation of a groundbreaking product had to be shared with them.  Every aspect had to be known by them.  And…guess what!  That scientific knowledge gave the sales force an edge that would enable them to reach the impossible goal.

So… innovation is a system.  The system has at least three tent poles — and more than its fair share of charismatic, driven executives.  Easy?  No. Important, absolutely.

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