The case for stealth innovation- Paddy Miller and Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg
I often have a strong feeling of dread when the latest copy of the Harvard Business Review is found upon opening the letterbox. Not because it isn’t useful and informative (I should hope so considering the subscription costs!), but more because it’s like a trip to the dentist; you know you have to, and often it’s not that hard once you’re in there, but you dread the thought. Enough of dentist metaphors! This month’s Review contained a great article on stealth innovation.
Not all companies are in the same position as OpenText of having to innovate to remain market competitive; in fact some companies do a roaring trade in talking innovative whilst being anything but. Whilst old school dinosaur companies make a habit out of avoiding it until the last possible moment (I’m looking at you: banking industry).
I found this article interesting on two levels; the practical “how to” aspect of stealth innovation and the shock that some companies that should (perhaps even I just assumed would...) have innovation hard coded into their DNA also struggled with the same issues as mere mortal companies. The article opens on this premise, but doesn’t explore it in detail, with a short anecdote/case study on Pfizer. I mean, if there is one industry you hope would be innovative it would be big Pharma.
But pushing my shock to one side the advice for practically applying stealth innovation was really powerful:
A Leading cause of innovation death is early exposure- it’s sort of obvious, at the idea stage you don’t have the data, you don’t have the solution, you don’t have market research, you don’t know how long it will take and how long it will cost… And logic dictates your idea will be filed under B, for bin (or T for trash for my American readers)
Mandate from the middle- This is where the resources are appropriated, and where people are most likely to understand the implications of your idea. I love the authors’ comment on asking for advice rather than pitching the idea. How many times have you worked yourself up into a frenzy about an idea for someone with different energy levels shock absorb your passion? (Just me then?)
Stealth testing- The strength of this tip was the case study. Again I fell off my chair shocked that at MTV there was a concern that an innovative idea might be killed off. Many questions entered my head at this juncture; I was astonished anyway that someone thought Jersey Shore was a good idea, but now I’m puzzled that this went through a strenuous vetting procedure and still survived intact? In the example chosen by the authors the innovators took risks and were creative in their approach to conducting a test… however I couldn’t help but think most companies would not look so kindly on this type of behavior (with or without performance stats to back it up).
Couple of quick fire points on the rest of the article:
Resourcing- “just find some space in a budget and re-apportion it” I’ve seen this concept in many a textbook but never in any company I’ve worked in… I wonder if this is how academics imagine companies work?
Comparing stealth activity to illegal activity- this is felt came out of no-where and the use of Jerome “What’s a billion between friends?” Kerviel a confusing example… I didn’t see what he did as innovation but more like a massive fraud and attempted cover-up. I felt a better example here would be to have highlighted cases where stealth innovation resulted in compliance issues or minor legal infractions… but I guess that just isn’t glamorous.
Also on a related point, can we stop calling them “rogue traders” it makes them sound like a morally dubious character from the MadMen universe, and instead use the less common phrase “convicted criminal”
For curious types, here is the link to the original article- http://hbr.org/2013/03/the-case-for-stealth-innovation/ar/4