When Dedicated Innovators Are Eliminated
It’s 2017, and you are congratulating yourself that you were just able to show some great savings by shuttering your innovation group here at Gadget Corp.
You wondered why your predecessor hadn’t shut the group down sooner – over the last 6 years that they were funded, they may have delivered a good number of prototypes and patents, but nothing that seemed to ever improve profitability.
You pat yourself on the back when you think about all the money that you are saving, all those people who were focused on innovation – dead weight you thought – could either find other jobs within your organization (if they were willing to follow your core vision of immediate profits over everything) or if they didn’t like the way things were going – they could always leave – there was no room left for fanciful thinking about the future. What did these people do all day, you thought when you were first put in charge of the group? How did they affect the bottom line?
As far as you were concerned, they were just a money pit. And good riddance.
Isn’t innovation everyone’s jobs anyway? You see no need for anyone to focus full time on innovation – if your people wanted to be innovative, they can just do it in their spare time. So, you announce that at the same time as the announcement of the restructuring of the innovation group.
There is a lot of turmoil for a while, then everything seems to settle down. Within the next year, a few “troublemakers” who continue to fight for internal innovation eventually get the message and leave, and you once again confirm with yourself that you made the right choice. Maybe you even get a promotion for record-setting profits.
Everything goes well until late 2018 when you read that a new competitor, Widget Enterprises, has sprung up, founded by a few folks who you let go in the last purge. They had an idea for a new product, which they developed a business model around which predicted a multibillion-dollar evaluation in a few years.
You squashed that idea, since not only did you not believe in the idea, you thought it would cannibalize your current business, and didn’t really have a large target market at the time. You even remember telling one of the idea’s inventors that the idea would never fly. It was just too radical for your customers.
You don’t worry though – you are running a major national corporation with excellent revenues and profits – recently augmented by your timely move to eliminate internal innovation programs and resources.
It’s 2019, and you note that they scored some funding, then soon after that, they started gaining customers virally. They exploded into the tech press, and then the regular press. You still find it hard to believe that anyone would prefer to do business with them instead of your venerable, established company, and dismiss them out of hand. Still, you are intrigued as this startup is portrayed in a glowing and positive light, while you are considered a slow-moving dinosaur.
Eventually, after calls from your executive team and board, concerned that Widget might cut into your own business, you realize that you now must come up with a product to compete in that space, so you look to their competitors for a quick acquisition. There’s nothing analogous out there, so you look inside for ideas. While all this has been going on, you never noticed that your best people – your most creative, innovative problem solvers and new product development people decided to move on to more innovative companies – somewhere where innovation is cherished and fed, instead of abandoned and starved.
You realized that, maybe, in the words of Job Bluth, that you may have made a huge mistake.
The only people left in your organization are company people – determined to squeeze the most profit out of your current set of products and services. You’ve driven anyone who can think outside of the box out of the company, and now you are starved for new ideas.
Since your profits have increased, you’re now CEO, but until now, you never realized that you were Major Kong straddling the nuke. You are heading downwards, faster than you ever thought possible.
Meanwhile, your upstart competitor, Widget, is making headway, capturing new customers in your space which could have been yours, as well as leeching off your customers. Slowly at first, but then increasingly, your customers simply switch – as Widget provides a better and more innovative, customer-centric service.
You wonder how they could have come so far so fast – not understanding how a small team, unfettered by legacy systems and with a lean and agile startup sensibility, could even scratch the surface of an unstoppable beast like your company. It’s now 2025, and you are struggling to catch up.
Not only is Widget capturing your current and future customers, there are other startups and companies moving into that space. It’s a completely new, extremely lucrative market, which was identified by the Widget founding team, while they were your employees, ten years earlier.
It’s 2030, and you are no longer the leader in your space. You may or may not even be working for Gadget anymore. Your board and leadership, panicked by the loss of revenue to Widget and others, vainly tries to reinject the innovative and creative stream back into the company by hiring a new CEO and a new team.
But it’s too late – innovation atherosclerosis, which is always around, in every company, takes hold, and there is nothing that can be done for Gadget Corp.
Eventually, in a final ironic turn, Widget buys Gadget for any IP, let’s go of most of the employees, and renames itself Widget-Gadget, since there is still some cachet left to the Gadget name.
This is happening all the time, every day.
When you don’t encourage and support innovation, creativity, and disruption within your organization, it will leave you. And when it leaves, it will take away more than itself – that innovative vision disappearing will affect everyone within your organization, directly or indirectly.
When you eliminate innovation in your organization, you are cutting off your lifeline to the future. You are not understanding that life is change, and that to survive, you must change as well.
Those best equipped to guide you through that change are your innovation personnel, your creative and curious dreamers – your prototype builders, your researchers, your patent development personnel. Those employees with one foot firmly in the future will be your salvation.
How well are you taking care of them today?