Operating Outside the Usual Innovation Channels

Ann All

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.

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Aug 20, 2008 5:41 PM John Smith John Smith  says:
This is so true, I especially notice this as a foreigner from UK working with Asian companies (in Thailand). Creative ideas and the (no offense meant) western mentality of trying to think around a solution rather than get stuck inside it is often stopped before it starts. We're hired to improve processes, then often stifled when introducing new ideas when doing so! The approach here is often to ignore 'issues', hoping they will go away, avoid conflict at all costs, then spend three times as much money and time fixing the problem. Local management or the powers that be often dimiss new radical ideas as ludicrous or instantly say 'it will not work', especially if the idea is unconventional or goes against the normal company policies or traditional ways of doing things. A good article! Reply
Aug 21, 2008 1:16 PM Suvro Upadhyaya Suvro Upadhyaya  says:
I never thought change management is too difficult having led many large changes in company XXX. I thought the same will be true in company YYY to lead major changes and I thought prematurely that what made me succeed in XXX will be same in YYY. Boy I was wrong. All boils down to the culture of the organization and attitude people have towards change. It also depends upon how much faith people have towards you in leading the change. Speaking from my experience in both success and failure is that the most important thing before embarking on change is establishing credibility, either in form of working towards it or having position that naturally gives credibility. The second most important thing is not to propose change but put forward the naked truths and gently guide people to embrace change. This is the most difficult part, particularly when loads of deadwood needs to be cleared urgently. By far, the most difficult thing is to change culture. In a situation when people have not changed jobs for 7-8 years in new-economy, force of culture can be unsurmountable. I did not believe that people can have problems in me asking open questions. Where as I steadfastly believe that asking right questions, even apparently stupid questions to probe assumptions, old way of doing things can not only help establish culture of thinking outside and innovate. Whereas you need people to believe in changes and you need people to drive the changes. Even when it is urgently required, being don-quixote in leading changes is personally fatal in case you do not have positional/credibility power to do so. It just means that having heart to let organization suffer a bit more for it wanting to change. Value of change is correctly ascertained when it is needed most. Leading proactive changes and getting the rewards of having it valued is only the effective strategy when you have positional/credibility power. Reply
Aug 22, 2008 1:07 PM Suvro Upadhyaya Suvro Upadhyaya  says:
I was thinking about this last night. I think change management is more like selling. When my 3.5 year old son goes to a shop and purchases a Nike shoes, he is not buying quality etc. he is buying into way of things, the active images that he can relate to and be proud of. To think of, he makes this decision against his earlier wishes to have a shoes with blinking light that I thought would be more appealing. The power of getting related to and be proud of is a greater driving force to change. From selling change perspective, I guess the people needs to be convinced of the change before change is attempted. Further, they should perceive themself as people bringing about this change and benefiting organization. This will ensure that we are establishing a long lasting culture where change is welcome. Do I still believe that there are some circumstances where we should be saying "My way or highway". Yes, if you are convinced that changes are urgent and organization can benefit from it and you have credibility/positional power to do so ( We all work to reward ourselves primarily. No point in taking risks with no rewards) . However, it is effective short term solution.RegardsSuvro Upadhyaya Reply

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