Thursday, 26 May 2011

Viagra for Innovation

Why stimulants are the answer for most of us

Last week I was in a giant tent in the grounds of London Business School to hear various CEO’s (amongst others - WPP’s Sir Martin Sorrell, Lloyds’ Antonio Horta-Osorio, 3M’s George Buckley) on the subject of innovation.  The unseasonal high winds meant that at some points the flapping of the tent added a sense of danger and was so loud you couldn’t hear the speakers.  But when I could I was struck by George Buckley describing how naturally innovation came to 3M. 

Most of our clients at ?What If! struggle to make innovation part of their day to day activities, for reasons we’re all too familiar with.  We’re also all familiar with 3M’s 15% ‘playtime’ (it’s actually closer to 5% as not everyone participates all the time) but what I hadn’t twigged was the power of innovation ‘confidence’.  The picture Buckley painted was of an organisation with innovation as part of it’s DNA.  An organisation where innovation, it’s boosters, blockers and rewards are out in the open.  No need to learn new skills each time they need to innovate because it’s a frequent activity that you get used to; ‘innovation is like going to the dentist, you get used to feeling the pain’.  As Buckley says innovation boils down to clear strategic direction, hiring optimistic people and allowing them freedom and choice so that ‘as a junior researcher I can have my hands on the company tiller – even if a little’. 

Later and in contrast another speaker, Nick Hughes, previously with Vodafone and developer of the Kenyan mobile money platform M-Pesa told us that he could only get traction on the idea after attracting £1m of external financing. This funded a prototype which enabled the project to move through the system. 

I suspect there are two sorts of large companies in the world; First there are a very limited number (4 or 5; maybe 3M, Google, IBM, Apple…..) with innovation DNA who have the ability to reproduce in different forms naturally and secondly, all other companies.  These are the leviathans for whom innovation is an alien activity. They require a dose of corporate Viagra to get them going.  An injection of something different – a cocktail of freshness and bravery from outside their organisation.

So there’s a new way of looking at innovation – if your organization doesn’t do it naturally then what’s your ‘stimulus’.  You never know it might be fun!