Is It Hard For Large Companies To Innovate?

After spending most of my working adult life inside a large company, you get to witness many things. Some would probably call them the good, bad and ugly. How many articles, blog posts and conversations have you been a part of that talks about “you must innovate” to continue to succeed? Can you really innovate in a large company?  If you are in a large company or have worked in a large company, think about that for a minute.  Pause… What is your definition of truly innovating? Take out the tweaks to what you are already doing. I would like you to think about those innovations that transform what the company is doing. Now, is there innovation happening?

I think it can happen, but it must be stressed and discussed at almost every turn. From my experience, many large companies have put in a lot of “systems” to insure that decisions or budget or product changes or whatever are following some version of “red” tape. Necessary? Yes, to a point. I feel that those “systems” cause many of the employee base to shy away from innovating. Why?

  • Fear of making a mistake. We all are told to “think outside of the box” or take a risk, but with many in a large company, make a mistake and you could be the person that is at the bottom of the performance curve. Taking risks and making mistakes can not be punished. All you have to think about is the mistake that invented the post-it note (the glue that just did not stick as well as it should have). I don’t want to tell you how many times I witnessed  that risk taker get singled out for not performing like the others. The first time it happens in a department, risk taking goes straight out the window. No words can bring it back.
  • Setting up “innovation programs” don’t work. Let me clarify the “program” a bit. These are those programs that have a sponsor, list of ideas, committees that review the ideas, approval processes, tracking approved projects and rewarding those “successful” innovators. Placing red tape completely around innovation. That does not really get innovation or does it? From  my experience it just gives you tweaks to what you already have. Usually those that are administering the “innovation system” are not entrepreneurial spirits but process certified folks. I would argue that many employees  will shy away from “red” tape.
  • Actions speak louder than words. Ever sit in a department update meeting and count the number of times the word “innovation” was used? Try it in your next large department meeting. Makes you want to get going on innovating. Then off you go! Once down that path. How did it go? With most large companies, it was a painful process. If you “really” wanted to fight city hall all the way – you would be exhausted and tell your co-workers about your experience. Actions are real (and in most cases shared with the rest).

What does it take for a large company to innovate? Right off the top there truly needs to be within the culture of the organization of entrepreneurial spirit. Thinking and acting like an entrepreneur. Time must be given within the daily order of business. If the “day job” is all time consuming, how in the world will people get to be thinking or working on something innovative. If you must have a process, make sure that it is very lean. Take out the many review committees, long templates and death by data analysis. Keep it simple (stupid). Lastly, reward every for their attempts at innovation. There is success in failure (you just have to look). I would say, it is better to focus on those that don’t or are not working on innovation. Make that a priority in their professional development plan. If you want that organization to be innovative… You must innovate your organization away from what they are doing today.

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