Operating Outside the Usual Innovation Channels


While business processes are used to aid innovation, sometimes they can hinder it as well.


IT Business Edge blogger Rob Enderle did a fine job of illustrating this in a post from earlier this month about an EMC project in which a maverick software engineer worked -- largely remotely -- with some colleagues on creating a product for the lucrative SMB market. The project, which Enderle describes as "top secret," operated outside of EMC's usual business processes, which are geared toward producing storage solutions for big companies.


Writes Enderle:

But EMC is structured to build and sell products to large enterprises, which are about as far removed from the target audience as you will get. Were EMC to use normal processes, what would likely result was something similar to the International Harvester Scout, a product that would cost too much to create and build, and that wouldn't sell.

Participants in the project agreed to keep it close to the vest, to avoid the troublesome internal politics that sometimes ground innovative ideas before they ever get off the ground. Software engineer Brian Gruttadauria led the project from the U.S., with much of the actual development taking place in the company's new facility in China. The far-flung team, which ultimately included about 40 people, relied on collaboration tools such as wikis and worked with partners from Intel and Iomega, a company EMC went on to acquire.

The resulting product, EMC LifeLine, "could never have been created at EMC in any other way," writes Enderle.

A similar approach of having employees work in small, self-directed groups was suggested in a recent 37signals article that I mentioned in a post last month. In that post, I also cited a CIO.com item about some of the innovation hurdles faced by many large companies: lack of incentives, uncertainty over pay-off, and internal politics and control issues. And I noted former Gartner fellow Bruce Rogow's advice for companies to recruit some of their most disgruntled workers and spin them out as a company competitor.

Though Rogow's advice will be too radical for most companies, many may feel more comfortable following suggestions from Segway inventor Dean Kamen and other innovative folks, which I related in a post from last April. Some of my favorites come from Sanjay Dalal, managing director of the Innovation Index Group:

  • Hire folks with diverse backgrounds and experience.
  • Encourage employees to find new ways to do daily work, and allow them to make decisions.
  • Create processes to value ideas on merit, no matter where they originate.
  • Identify and separate an organization's creative and operational functions.
  • Extend your organization to partners, suppliers and customers.