Monday, July 6, 2015

Innovating from the inside can be hard

Companies function as mostly self-sufficient entities in terms of products and services:  They come up with the idea, they develop the idea, then they implement the idea... and implement the idea more... and implement the idea more.  For a few smart companies (Apple, Facebook, and Google for example), new ideas have been generated in-house through well constructed development efforts, and purchased from the outside by acquiring companies that came up with new ideas.  However, most companies are more like Blockbuster Video and Radio Shack -- they come up with a great concept and run with it -- and primarily it -- until they go under.

If Google and Apple were to trade creative teams for a year, we would see an explosion of creativity in both companies.  The reason for this was well illustrated for me by my then-six year old daughter.  We visited my grandmother's apartment -- a place I'd been to many times before.  My daughter asked if it was ok if she took some pictures with my camera, I said "sure", and off she went.  When I later looked at the pictures, it took me a while to realize that they were all taken inside of that apartment.  She had taken a close-up of a faceted clear doorknob, interesting moulding on the ceiling, the back side of a statue, and other unexpected images.

I immediately understood something critical:  Even a dedicated inventor, one who embraces creativity, can become insensate to his environment.  I had been at that apartment so many times -- and I had been in similar places so many times -- that it never occurred to me to look at the ceiling, the back of statues, the doorknobs when taking photos.  Those things became part of the background noise.  This is very similar to a phenomenon called "sensory adaptation" whereby a stimulus fades out over time as our brains begin to ignore it.  So airplane engine sound, or an annoying smell, might become imperceptible to us simply because our brains decide it is part of the background and can be ignored.

This is why innovating from the inside is hard.  No matter how creative a person is, they will eventually get used to the environment at any given company.  They come to ignore the signals that an outsider would immediately see.  Sure, innovation is possible in such an environment -- Google is proof of that -- but without a constant flow of fresh innovators, even Google's creative output will diminish over time.

If innovating from the inside is hard, the corollary is also true:  Innovating from the outside is easy.  An outsider takes in the totality of an environment.  The outsider has yet to become insensate to the possibilities that a company's assets, employees, history, customers and other factors present.

It would be disruptive if a company were to rotate innovators through various, distant and different locations.  It would be very disruptive if companies were to trade innovators for a year.  It would be enormously disruptive if a company were to bring in professional innovators.  Disruption has become a code word, but in this case it applies quite literally:  We want to disrupt whatever sensory adaptation has taken place.  We want to disrupt whatever groupthink has overtaken a company.  We want to create new products and services that are capable of remaking our world.  For that kind of massive innovation, the natural comfort and inattention that come with working long term in the same place, with the same people, is practically a formula for failure.

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