Winning Strategies for Innovators in Large Companies
One July morning my boss called me into a conference room, glared at me for a few seconds, and hissed, “This is shit.” He slapped a screen showing my latest product release with the back of his hand to punctuate his disgust.
“OK, can you be specific about what you’d change?” I responded meekly. I’d worked my ass off and thought it was very good.
“Everything. It’s a bad product, that already exists, that’s designed badly.” He said. “I expect more from you. I’m disappointed.” He then gave a stack of papers 2 neat taps on the table and left the room.
I sat in silence for a few minutes alternating between rage, panic that I would be fired, and deep, humiliating self loathing.
The following morning the exact product that I had shown him, with my exact designs was shipped with Pete’s name on it and mine removed. (I’ll give his real name once my lawyer says it’s ok)
“That is a privilege that I have.” Was how he responded when I confronted him about it.
Within a month it became the fastest growing product at the company. Within a year I would quit.
I tell this story not because I’m begrudging and insecure. (Although I am, unfortunately, both of those things.) Or not exclusively because of that. I tell it because it illustrates a fundamental truth of enterprise innovation: the people who fight it the most need it most. It is indeed a privilege, as Pete said. He tried to kill my product, then saw that he needed it, and then he stole it.
Any innovator in any major company has experienced something close to this. You’re told that you’re shit, you’re sloppy, you’re insubordinate, you’re duplicative, “that’s not the way we do things here,” and that you’re going to piss off some senior Vice President whose only obvious value is that he’s a senior Vice President.
You may read the Lean Startup, The Innovator’s Dilemma, The Hard Thing About Hard Things, or Zero to One. (You should if you haven’t already.) You might religiously follow James Altucher, Tim Ferriss, and Fred Wilson. And you may make the bold move of “going agile” or “creating an MVP” only to find that after a few dogged months you’re shit, you’re sloppy, you’re insubordinate, you’re duplicative, “that’s not the way we do things here.” you’re going to piss off some senior Vice President….
Eat. Shit. Flush. Repeat.
I wrote this book to solve a problem that existing innovation resources don’t solve. You will never have the space nor the mandate to deploy those tools unless you first understand that the companies that need innovation most have the most contempt for it. Overcoming that fundamental paradox is something that took me a long, painful time. When I broke through it once, and then a second time, and then with every subsequent product I built I realized that I had developed an enterprise innovation strategy that broke many of the rules of how you’re supposed to innovate. And it worked.
I also wrote this book because innovation, when it happens, is one of the most thrilling moments you can ever experience. When I listen to Marc Maron describe the first time he got an audience to laugh after bombing night after night as a young standup comedian I’m reminded of my first successful product launch 11 years ago. We were excited about how our new product would transform the world. That excitement deflated as each client wasn’t sure what button to press, what problem it solved, or why it was better than the tools they already used. So, we redid it and then we redid it again. And tried to resuscitate morale after each of these early failures.
After a few weeks of revisions we made a decision to stop being safe. The software was showing that the US housing market was going to collapse. We had been shy about shouting that too loudly because so many people were watching the market grow. We reversed course and redesigned the product so that that the impending crash that the tool predicted was impossible to ignore.
At the next user test we asked a portfolio manager from a small hedge fund what he thought.
“How would you describe this app to a friend?” I asked him.
“It’s an intuitive, persuasive tool for navigating a crisis that nobody sees coming. And people should use it.”
I felt kind of like I did when my son was born.
Those small seeds of validation are giant leaps for a team freaking out about whether anyone needs their creation. And they are even bigger leaps for a large company that thinks that launching a product means placing a Super Bowl ad — not a user test in a shabby conference room.
No one should die without feeling the thrill of a bold idea being transformed into a living, breathing, resource that people love and use. The world needs more people to add that kind of value with their finite time on earth. And it needs less people destroying that kind of value in order to protect territory. That’s another reason I wrote this book.
The one overarching principle of this book is to either break the speed limit or quit. The middle ground of coasting is where innovation gets suffocated and dies. By holding your project to a standard of record-breaking velocity you will unlock value in yourself, your company, and for the world that is unthinkable when you start.
There are also a few core pillars of this strategy:
Innovation vs. decoration
Innovation as I mean it here is daring: it is creating a product that would put your company out of business if it was built by anyone else. It should deliberately force people with an entrenched interest in a suboptimal status quo to pick a side. It should be so valuable and so fast that the bigger risk is that you serve that market elsewhere.
What I don’t mean by innovation is rebranding the same design, IT, or software systems that have always been in place as “innovation” by building them in 2-week “agile” sprints. You should absolutely do that because it’s more efficient. But it won’t protect you from a lean, hungry startup who will pounce on your inertia and do to you what Netflix did to Blockbuster.
Put another way: Innovate like your company’s life depends on it. Because if that’s not true yet, it will be soon.
Lift off, Then Count Down
The only unfair advantage of an innovation team is the ability to immediately turn an idea into a product and validate it with users. This means that in less than a week you should be be putting prototypes in front of users and you should do this every subsequent week until users start to respond to what you’ve built. It also means that you should be constantly running Facebook ads under a pseudonym to pre-register people for your not yet launched app.
You then fight like Hell for these people. Structure everything you design and build around serving these users. And demand that the key gatekeepers in your company serve them too — even if it means they fire you.
Getting Fired Is a Successful Exit. Getting Coopted is Not
You will never feel empowered to innovate if you consider getting fired to be failure rather than a successful exit. You need to understand that the world needs innovators more than they need a stale company clinging to territory. Your long term value is entirely dependent on your ability to break the speed limit and bring great products to market. No one cares if you ever become a senior vice president; despite what the HR said at your last performance review.
There are glamorous exits like spinning off your product or your team. And there are more punk-rock exits like quitting or getting fired. As long as you’re building and launching they’re all successful. What actually constitutes failure is being coopted and launching safe, ordinary products; or never launching anything.
Opposition is Validation
Another unfair advantage to proactively trying to get fired is that you can take risks that would be unthinkable to someone who actually cares about getting promoted. Think of opposition as validation. And think of a lack of opposition as failure. If you’re not provoking people then you’re not innovating hard enough.
The politics of enterprise innovation are so different than corporate politics which dictate that you should never make your boss feel threatened. Innovation politics are that you are the thin membrane separating your company from extinction — whether or not they want to accept it. You should constantly reinforce just how threatened the company is, and be willing to exit to serve users more effectively if they can’t support you. They’ll thank you later. Or maybe they won’t. The point is that you owe it to yourself to create real value.
Right before I quit the job with Brad (I’ll name the company once my lawyer says it’s ok) I started to see the world in two very distinct camps: There are companies building for impact and companies holding onto territory. That dichotomy is cultural more than it is a distinction between startups and enterprise or new economy and old economy. We’ve entered an age which rewards the impactful and punishes the territorial.
I hope that this book empowers the innovators who are currently stuck in stagnant corporations. The World needs you.
This is the opening chapter of of a book I am writing on innovation in large companies. I have created and launched innovative products at companies and startups including Bloomberg, PWC, Google, MSCI, Innovest, RiskMetrics, and Viacom.