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Corn Fields and Anti-bodies

| On 30, Nov 2007

Jack Hipple

Managing Innovation–A View from the Experts


The September 24 edition of the Wall Street Journal contained a special section focusing on their annual innovation awards. A panel discussion (including IDEO, Packer Design, Cisco, and Google) was held. Both the questions and the answers are enlightening in the light of the current surge of interest in innovation. I loved the analogies drawn and want to share them with you and suggest you think about them in the context of your own innovation efforts.


The very first question asked by the WSJ editor Scott Thurm was,”How do you get people to think beyond 18 months if the whole company is focused [only] on 18 months?” Two answers and analogies were truly enlightening to me, even though I’ve been in this business a long time. Doug Solomon from IDEO said “it’s tough to do and very few big companies do it well…… corporate anti-bodies arise and try to envelop and kill any innovation”. Let’s think about this in a parallel universe. How do we kill invading viruses entering our bodies? We inject antibodies (dead ones typically, or sometimes below the threshold level) and the bodies’ natural defenses produce their own antibodies. How does the virus deal with this over time? It mutates! We now have strains of staphylococcus virtually immune to any anti-biotics. How can we “mutate” an organization so that it survives the attack of the anti-bodies? What is mutation? It’s converting something into a new form that is unrecognizable and allows the “disease” (innovation?) to sneak into the body (organization?) unrecognized. How would we do that? We frequently try to introduce innovation into an organization with big new programs accompanied by bells and whistles, kick off celebrations, and widespread new training in some technique or process (“shot”). The antibodies (the old timers who have seen all this before) wait it out, knowing that time will kill the newly injected virus. And they are confident because they’ve seen it before–many several times. A big executive launch and no follow up on a daily basis. Nothing really changes in the business, how people are rewarded, or how new ideas are treated or evaluated. When business goes sour, the interest in innovation wanes, the risk takers are “downsized”, and the budgets reallocated. The anti-bodies are vindicated. So maybe we should mutate into a slowly propagating organization (host) whose changes are too subtle for the antibodies to recognize. Maybe some simple steps such as discussing on a daily basis with those who report to you and with whom you work–“What did you differently today? Have you read anything new that might be interesting for our business? Did you see anything on your last trip that struck you as unusual? What was our customer talking about that had nothing to do with what we sell to them? What was unusual about it? What did you read in the daily paper that got your curiosity up? Did you follow up? Make a phone call? Do a Google search? Do ANTHING about it? What is the biggest threat to our business that isn’t our #1 competitor?


If these kinds of conversations began at the top and worked down in a slow, subtle, but methodical way and people were reinforced for getting curious and thinking differently (and being recognized for doing so!), they wouldn’t notice that their antibodies were being attacked. This can work both ways–there’s no need to kill an innovation effort when business sours. It’s just the target that changes. Reducing costs dramatically takes just as much breakthrough innovation thinking as coming up with a new product or business idea, and it may be even easier to implement. We just need to mutate the effort slowly so that the skepticism and doubt is planted into the DNA to be remembered when the next innovation program starts.


The second comment made by Doug related to an agricultural analogy for corporations. He said, “when you’re trying to grow corn…you don’t want surprises….you change things very slowly”. That’s because your livelihood can go down the drain with one major false move (lack of rain, insect invasion). Then he made the innovation analogy with a greenhouse where you nurture small plots and surprises are fun, interesting, and not irritating. It’s tough to monitor greenhouses and row crops at the same time or in the same way! You don’t see greenhouses in the middle of thousands of rows of corn. Doug made the analogy of transplanting to cause us to think about how difficult it is to transplant something new from the greenhouse into the field. It’s fraught with peril. Maybe we ought to keep it (the new businesses?) separate for a while. If we do decide to transplant, Doug asks us to think about soil (organizational?) preparation. We don’t do this very well. If you are transplanting, you need to know when is the right time, the best conditions, the competitive nutrient environment, the root system,the soil condition, etc. If you fail, do you just give up? Or do you learn from the failure to improve the next time? A few companies (Thermoelectron comes to mind–recently acquire by Fisher Scientific) have done this very well. All major new ideas are treated as separate businesses and then spun off with a stock offering where the original parent still controls much of the stock. Everyone involved has the feeling they are involved in a start up at all times.


How would you make your people feel like they were involved in a start up at all times? What questions should you be asking every single day of your employees and co-workers to slowly, but surely, mutate? How would you change your compensation system? How would you manage parallel greenhouses without interfering with your row corn? What are YOUR ideas for “back mutating” when the economy goes south in the next few years?