This is the second article in a series about finding hidden innovators. As it is a continuation, you may want to read the first article before this one, if you haven't already.
“What I need, is for you guys to be a more mature organization. People around here need to feel like they’re dealing with another mature organization or they’re not going to buy in, no matter how good the idea is.” - Honest Client
In the middle of a pitch, this statement was bewildering. We had been working with this client for months towards an innovation that would be a giant leap forward for his company. It had the very real potential to create enormous market disruption and generate real growth. It also happened to be an innovation that his company was uniquely suited to bring to reality.
Everything seemed aligned to take a real shot at changing the world together. The person who made the statement was involved with the ideas since day one. So why were we feeling pushback now, just as we were ready to move towards implementation? I was talking to an innovator who was going into hiding.
That pitch was the last time we ever talked seriously about the idea. To this day, it’s still a great idea, and to this day it still hasn’t gained any real traction within the company. The last I heard, it had found its final resting place in a spreadsheet of things that should, at some point, be considered. No one talks about it. Those who were passionate about it have either moved on or given up on ever seeing it become a reality.
How does this happen? Why do “mature” companies, who often have access to the talent and funds to innovate on a large scale, seem to shrug off opportunities? And why do their most valuable innovators seem to disappear over time?
I needed to see if I could unpack what my client was trying to tell me and extract the wisdom within the message.
“Be a more mature organization”
In the world of business life cycle terminology, a “mature” organization is one that has grown to be considered “stable.” These companies are well established in their industry, and they have an understood product and maybe even fans. They have predictable, incremental growth. They also generally have multiple competitors, which means their market displays the price sensitivity native to competitive markets.
If you read them again, each of those properties serves as a driver to effectively limit disruptive change. As a result of sustained growth, these companies have spent years, sometimes decades, creating and tweaking processes that make sure the production of their core product never gets disrupted. Entire internal organizations exist to predict outcomes, audit failures, and mitigate risks.
This myopic focus on mitigating risk is fantastic for making sure the trains run on time. However, the processes associated with this focus often fail to differentiate between “good” and “bad” change. They unintentionally stifle the best ideas, most promising innovations, and most creative innovators, along with preventing disasters.
Over time a culture grows that speaks fondly of innovation, but discourages the risks associated with making meaningful change. Incentives evolve to reward the status quo and eliminate anything that can be interpreted as a disruption.
In my world, being creative and aggressive, while driving hard towards growth, generated positive excitement. In my client’s world, it created unwanted anxiety. He was pointing out a major perceived difference between our organizations. He didn’t actually want my organization to act like a “mature” company, in fact he was paying us specifically not to think like his company. But in his world, in a mature company, he was struggling to match up our potentially disruptive ideas with a deep culture of risk mitigation.
“They’re not going to buy in”
My client knew his environment well. He knew the culture. He lived in it every day. I had the luxury of moving in and out of the corporate culture, but he spent every day listening to peers and management make decisions about what would, and would not, receive funding.
The innovation we were recommending was going to conflict with the risk mitigation culture. It would soon be competing for funding, and if you’ve worked for a mature company, you likely know how well “change a fundamental approach” goes over, if anyone is even willing to recommend it.
In small groups of hidden innovators within mature companies, the hope that change may be on the horizon still generates hushed excitement. But when the change attached to an innovation meets a committee, which is both a product of, and responsible for, the risk mitigation culture, it ultimately gets relegated to the “too risky,” “too expensive,” or “we need to know more” list to be considered “later.”
“No matter how good the idea is”
For these hidden innovators, seeing their hopes, which are wrapped up in innovative ideas, die on the vine, can breed a particular type of melancholy. They can feel out of place, at odds with the system, or disruptive when trying to engage their unique talents for the benefit of the company.
Over time, these policies, internal politics, silos, and urgent day-to-day tasks can force even the most creative innovators to go into hiding. At best they may find an area, or manager, in the company that appreciates their creativity as it applies to a very specific, narrow outcome. At worst they will grow dissatisfied and seek to leave the company altogether.
Unfortunately, neither of these outcomes is ideal for hidden innovators or the companies that employ them.
For companies, there is a life cycle stage beyond “mature” that is known as “decline.” It happens when a company matures to a point that it forgets how to change altogether. It will then find itself unable to respond to market trends or other important drivers. It sometimes takes a while, but these companies eventually either fade away or pivot into an entirely new business model. There are plenty of examples of exactly this in the news today if you look for them.
Mature companies provide some of the best employment opportunities around, and they certainly provide some of the best products. But as we’ve covered, they are also particularly susceptible to driving their innovators into hiding over time which can lead to stagnation. Now that we understand the landscape in which these innovators may be hiding, we will work in our next article to talk about the sorts of behaviors they may exhibit.