Organization Anti-Patterns Part 1: Innovation Workshops

I’m testing whether there’s enough interest in a weekly series on the failings of Large Organizations. This series will focus on highlighting the self-destructive ways in which big companies function and how these destroy value for shareholders, employees and society at large.
These are complex issues with no easy, one-size-fits-all solutions and I’m not going to propose any in the article itself. That said, I’d love to discuss alternative ways of doing business in the comments, if there’s sufficient reader interest/participation. I’m going to try to avoid Buzzfeed/LinkedIN style List format articles and focus on long form writing.
What you see below is a small sample of the topic coverage and writing style. If you’d be interested in reading something like this, let me know with a comment! I’d especially appreciate suggestions on content and topic ideas that would be relevant for you.

Spend enough time at a large, traditional MNC and you’re guaranteed to be press ganged into at least a few “Ideation Workshops”. The purpose of these exercises is laudable in theory — the best minds of the organization work together to Create a list of Innovative ideas which will revolutionize the way the company does business and take it to the “Next Level” (what exactly this mythical Level comprises of is never explained, of course!)

However, the way these Meetings proceed would be comical, if it were not so depressing. They typically comprise of half a dozen senior Executives gathered around a table for an hour or two, throwing out a series of unrelated ideas with justifications such as:

“Gartner/Forrester/IDC say this is the next big thing”

“I was at a conference in Vegas/London/Barcelona last week and met this vendor who said he would deploy this within 2 months! Let’s do it”

“Google/Microsoft/Salesforce made $XX Billion last year. Even if we capture 1% of their market with this Product, this’ll be huge”

“When I was your age, I launched this very product and it was super successful. Just follow what I did”

“I was interviewing this candidate yesterday and these were some of the ideas he had for things we could be doing”

(These are all justifications which the author has heard first-hand in such meetings.)

Their underlings, the men and women who actually run the business on a day to day basis are assigned note-taking duties. Dissent or Suggestions are either ignored or actively discouraged, typically by a combination of ad-hominem attacks (“You are always pessimistic and just not a Team Player”) or spurious appeals to authority (“I have been in this industry 20 years and this is how it’s done”)

The meetings always conclude with the scribes tasked with creating a summary of the Innovation Strategy and Roadmap which fits into a single Powerpoint slide. This slide makes its way to the 40th slide of the next monthly Operations Review with the CEO and finally comes up for discussion during the last five minutes of a two hour long meeting, once the myriad tactical day to day aspects of running a large business are discussed at length.

Now, if you’ve ever had the misfortune to sit in on a 2 Hour meeting in a frigidly Air Conditioned office, you’ll immediately realize that by the end of this duration, the only thing on anyone’s mind is their near bursting bladder. This being a rather non-conducive frame of mind for any task requiring attention or thought, the outcome is sadly predictable. The CEO waves away the slide in less than a minute, blissfully oblivious that they’re signing off a bunch of hunches with zero customer insight or research to support them.

In effect, you have an organization’s complete Innovation Strategy, reduced to a collection of barely informed guesswork and validated as a closing footnote in a routine Executive briefing.

The aforementioned Executives cite the CEO’s approval as validation for their intuitive feel for what the Customer wants. The Business Team gets stuck with an irrelevant, unfeasible roadmap. A handful of teams ignore it entirely and focus on building stuff that Customers actually need. Most others halfheartedly execute what they’re asked to. Those who can, hunt for jobs on the side and exit the organization while the others plod along trying to look busy. Over time, the organization gradually develops a reputation as a laggard, pushing out Me-too products. Smart people stop applying to join, making the lack of innovation a self-fulfilling prophesy.

And everyone wonders why Big Companies suck at Innovation and get Disrupted?

Disclaimer: The opinions above are entirely personal and do not represent the views of my employers, either past or present

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