Clash of Ideas is at the Heart of Innovation

Entrepreneurship is nothing if not about introducing new ideas. It is about introducing ideas, protecting those ideas in their infant stages, executing those ideas, and finally allowing those strong young ideas to cannibalize the weak and old ones that are still prevalent in the company.

Resistance to new ideas and concepts seems to be original equipment within the genetic code of organizations. That resistance is amplified as we diversify the company across time, space, and culture. If the company is old, the resistance is more. If the company was very successful in the past, perhaps once a market leader, the resistance is more. If the company is very flat and listens to people’s opinions throughout the organization, the resistance is more. CEOs who can successfully prune future organizations are CEOs who have proven they can surmount the very toughest obstacles there are. It is very difficult to grow a beautiful new flower while the old weed is still firmly rooted in the prime soil.

So creatively destructive CEOs practice ‘shaping’ as a daily task. If there is a solid, undeniable, reason to push something out of the spotlight, it is already too late, and competitors are already on the move. The job of creative destruction must take place even when the company is at the heights of success. CEO’s must actively engage in looking for things to kill — even currently successful things. Without that mindset that nothing is sacred, new ideas cannot flourish. Without the willingness to look at yourself the way a competitor would look at you — as a target to be torn down, weak link by weak link, new ideas will always be squashed by the old ones.

Some of the problems new ideas face includes:

  • New products with new technologies compete for attention and talent with the old. Quota-driven sales teams don’t want to take risks with new products. They don’t want to risk alienating customers who never asked for something new in the first place. They will stick with the old, and throw out the new. Tried and true, but now old, products suck the money and air out of anything new and revolutionary.
  • Fear leads to a dumbing-down of innovative activity. Brand Extension runs amok. There is a clear mislabeling of a simple extension of ‘what we’ve already been doing’ as something new and innovative. Not only is it not innovative, but it isn’t any safer than the original business. One good bullet will kill the original business and all its extension. Don’t confuse Mission Creep for innovation.
  • Your best customers say they don’t like your new ideas. The most important asset great companies have is great customers. So, great companies listen to their customers closely. They listen to the market closely. But the market won’t bring them the next great idea. A market never asks for revolutions, it just asks for efficiency and effectiveness gains. Car buyers ask for better gas mileage. They don’t ask for vertical take-off and landing. Computer buyers ask for faster speed and more stability. They don’t ask for artificial intelligence. Moviegoers ask for better special effects and better sound. They don’t ask to participate in the movie. When vertical take-off and landing comes, your customers who told you that better gas mileage was ‘the thing’ are going to hit the road. And the market will have found its new winner.
  • Analysis Paralysis. Companies don’t invest in new ideas simply because they are new. All of the metrics of modern leadership — Return on Investment, Economic Value Added, etc. are iffy. There are numbers to meet, goals to be accomplished, and CEOs can’t just go throwing money down what could end up as a black-hole. It is the very newness of new ideas, the ambiguity of their nature that makes them hard to pursue. Most companies are just not set up for that.

There are, of course, myriad other problems we could discuss, from jealousy and anger over funding going to new projects, to unwillingness for superstars to enter a project where they might fail. So what to do? It is by no means an easy task to be entrepreneurial within the confines of a large and complex organization. A paper on what companies might do to change the situation could be a book, so I’ll just list a few short points.

  • Reward failure. Promote trying rather than punishing failure.
  • Separate the innovators from the money makers. Create a separate division, a secret one, charged with replacing your winning products before your competition does. Having a separate division shields them from jealousy and anger.
  • Judge your innovators by different standards. Imagination, creativity, questions asked and questions answered. Give them carte blanche to challenge the conventional wisdom the company prides itself on currently.
  • Give innovators a separate but equal path to career progression. Judge them differently, BUT, and this is the key point — make sure they feel equal with the money makers in the organization. If becoming an innovator means losing your ability to get promoted, the organization won’t have any innovators.

The basic skills needed by our hero CEO are two, the courage to seek the truth, and the ability to make others want to embrace it. Truth and simplicity lie at the heart of creative destruction. For self-deception and the complications that naturally cloak every decision, the company makes lie at the heart of maintaining the status quo.

The history of future corporations is already composed. It is not the story of cowardly deeds but a rather a chorus of many crescendos. It is the story of companies who were bold enough to ‘let go’ and focus only on what ‘can be’ and not on ‘what is.’ These companies possess a future of unbounded risk and unbounded reward. Wow. Who has the courage to lead?

Steven B. McKinney is the founder & President of McKinney Consulting Inc.(IRC Korea) a partner firm of IRC Global Executive Search Partners (Top 3 Globally) with over 17 years of experience as a consultant in executive search and leadership consulting placing 100’s of executives of multinational companies in Korea and Asia-wide. Mr. McKinney is also the co-founder of the Korea Business Leaders Association (KBLA). He earned the distinction of Certified Master Coach from Behavioral Coaching Institute and a certificate in Leadership Coaching Strategies from Harvard University. Previously he managed global footwear R&D efforts for Adidas International and oversaw manufacturing production and R&D duties for Reebok International in Korea.