I’ll let you in on a dirty little secret. There is nothing that a consultant loves more than to hear a big company talk about a Big Idea. Not because it is inspiring or innovative. Not because it will change the world or transform an industry. Those are all true. No, the reason it warms the cockles of a consultant’s little coal black heart is that it means one thing – big paycheck. To a consultant, a big company with a Big Idea means another year or three of private college tuition or that new Audi.
You see, big companies LOVE Big Ideas. How many times have you heard an executive challenge his or her team to come up with the next Big Idea? And it makes sense right? If you’re a Fortune 500 company, you need a Big Idea because anything but a Big Idea simply won’t move the needles. But here’s the thing – big companies are really bad at Big Ideas.
My top 5 list of why Big Ideas suck for big companies:
1. They’re too big to fail: Any entrepreneur will tell you that they learned more from their failures than their successes. Failure is a necessary ingredient of innovation. Fail fast and learn from it. But when a big company has a Big Idea they usher it into existence with pronouncements and prognostications. Board presentations are made. MBOs aligned. New people are hired and existing people retrained. Big Ideas get an institutional life of their own and they’re very, very resilient. How many of you have seen this in person? Perhaps you’re living it today. A Big Idea that should have failed, but lives on – chewing up valuable time, money and resources simply because no one is willing to admit failure.
2. They’re stunted: Big Ideas at big companies have to comply with a whole set of parameters wholly unknown to the entrepreneur. They can’t cannibalize existing or core products or services. Imagine Hilton Hotels discussing the concept of creating a service that would make it easy for people to rent their homes, apartments or bedrooms to strangers. How long do you think that idea would last in a Hilton boardroom? About a nanosecond after someone pointed out that it would cannibalize the existing hotel business. Hello Airbnb.
3. They languish: So let’s talk innovation – big company style. What’s the first thing you do? You create an Innovation Committee. You assign people with day jobs to this Innovation Committee. It has to be cross-functional so before the Innovation Committee can even meet it exceeds the Amazon 2 Pizza Rule. Fear of missing out and office politics run rife inflating it even more. And to make it all big company-like someone assigns a program manager to shepherd the entire thing. I have nothing against program managers but what’s the first thing a program manager would do? Create a spreadsheet to capture all of the Big Ideas.
Next to it are columns indicating things like budget, prerequisites, stakeholders and all sorts of program management-y stuff. To top it off, everyone on the committee already has a day job and the success of the Innovation Committee is decidedly not in their compensation package. By the time a Big Idea makes it off of the program manager’s spreadsheet and into reality, it is about two years too late and is the least compelling of the lot.
4. Big Ideas become Big Lies: This is probably the most insidious thing about Big Ideas at big companies. Big companies love to hire smart people with impressive backgrounds and education. Everyone wants to contribute something to the Big Idea because, well, they’re smart and capable. But it turns into a game of telephone where every person in the chain feels like they need to contribute. The words “bowling ball” go in one end and, in best case, the words “a spherical kinetic energy transfer vehicle with three digital inputs” come out the other. Usually it is much worse because the Big Idea becomes festooned with political agendas, pet projects, protectionism and hoopla. In short order, they resemble an omnibus funding bill in congress rather than a Big Idea. They become Big Lies.
5. Big Ideas leave big companies: How many of you have heard the following, “you know the folks that founded [insert amazing startup]? Yeah, they used to work here.” If you were at a company and had a Big Idea you truly cared about, would you try to run the gauntlet of bureaucratic machinery I just described? You might. But once the machinery took over and your Big Idea was perverted or crushed, what would you do? You’d leave and go bring your Big Idea to life elsewhere. And that’s exactly what happens. We see it every single day.
Big Companies Are Not Screwed
So are big companies just screwed and incapable of Big Ideas? Hell no! Big Ideas thrive, and even endure. They’re happening right now. But here’s the thing, they don’t happen because a committee was tasked with coming up with a Big Idea. They happen at the coffee machine. Or in the meeting room while you’re waiting for a conference call to start. Or from a consultant on his or her second day of a project. Or over after work beers with a vendor. They happen all the time and 99% of them land on the office floor – destined to be swept into the corner by the hustle and bustle of work. Years later when you see some 24-year-old on a magazine cover you mutter into your beer about how they “stole” your idea.
How many times have you heard the genesis of what turned out to be a Big Idea come out of your coworker’s lips (or even your own)? But it wasn’t in your job description. The Innovation Committee couldn’t cost justify it. It didn’t align with our annual strategic goals. I couldn’t get the time…
Screw It, Let’s Do It
You know the secret to innovation? Those five words. It is one person saying to the other, “screw it, let’s do it”. Look, I’m not making this stuff up. My personal hero, Sir Richard Branson, even wrote a book bearing that title. You should give it a read.
You want an innovation mantra for your organization? Look no further than those five words.
Truth: Big Ideas never come into the world as Big Ideas. They come into the world as ideas. Not big, not small. Just ideas. And they’ll remain just ideas until someone takes action. Until someone does something. Until someone picks it up off the office floor and breathes life into it. You don’t need an Innovation Committee for that. You just need someone to do it.
Sparks and Embers
Ideas start as sparks. Tiny infinitesimal concepts. You’ve all been there when a good idea happens. You can literally feel it. It tickles that elusive part of your brain. Your job as an employee, manager or executive is to make sure those sparks turn into embers – the first manifestation of an idea. How do you do it? Not beat a dead horse here but you just do it.
Look, we live in a world of 3D printers, cloud computing and open source software to do everything from manage your house’s environmental controls to being an artificial intelligence to give you relationship advice, and everything in between. Never before has it been so easy and so cheap to turn a spark into an ember.
Most embers will die off and never get any larger. Remember then whole discussion about failing fast? But some will persist. Some will grow. Some will be worthy of becoming something greater. And some may eventually become Big Ideas.
And you know what? That’s when the machinery of the big company comes into play. Man, nothing can turn an ember into a raging inferno like the legions of employees and deep pockets of a big company. Want an example? Take a look at the history of Amazon Web Services. As an entrepreneur, I salivate over the idea of an ad budget, a program management office and customer service operation. Or even *gasp* a mature sales force. Holy smokes! I could colonize Mars with those sorts of resources.
So What Now?
I’ve been picking on big companies because that’s where this Big Idea way of thinking is most readily apparent. Truth is that all companies of any size and any age fall prey to Big Idea mentality. Take a long hard look at your operation and ask yourself where you see the concepts described above coming into play.
And then ask yourself if you’re willing to do something about it. If you find yourself still on the fence, consider this: insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results (Einstein, Albert).
Are you ready?
Then read on.
My 10 step program for making a change, right here, right now
Step 1: Kill the Innovation Committee – Figuratively of course. Recognize that your operational people are really good at operational things and let them focus on that. It will only take a phone call and an email. I assure you that 90% of the people on it will be grateful to have their 2pm time slot every other Thursday freed up.
Step 2: Stop asking for Big Ideas – Stop it. Not in your executive retreats. Not in your management meetings. Not in your team meetings. Ban the term if you have to.
Step 3: Start asking for ideas – Let it be known that ideas of any perceived size are welcome. Don’t box them in with speculative expectations or artificial constraints.
Step 4: Make time for ideas – One of the things we’ve created is the Maroon IdeaSpark. Simply put, the IdeaSpark is where you put the people who are likely to have ideas (hint: they’re the ones doing or directly responsible for the work) in a room for a day of brainstorming. Consider hiring an outside consultant to facilitate and add ideas of their own. Maybe even invite some of your external partners to attend. Focus it on a particular topic (e.g. how do we achieve XX% growth in traffic next year) and see what happens. Feed them with pizza. Reward them with beer.
Step 5: Make it someone’s job to turn them into embers – You need to make sure that it is someone’s job – their exclusive job – to turn promising ideas into embers. By embers I mean proofs of concept. Prototypes. Minimally viable products. I’ll be really honest with you; that person should have an entrepreneurial background. If you can’t find that person to hire, consider partnering with a third party to inject that sort of DNA into the system.
At Maroon we offer our Entrepreneur in Residence program to do just this. We act as a scrappy startup operating inside a larger corporation. Whether you use us or someone else, the key here is that you need to find an entrepreneur and make it his/her job to turn sparks into embers.
There absolutely should be some oversight on what candidate sparks are slated for ember-hood and the requisite cost controls (hint: keep it scrappy, keep it lean). But don’t let this turn into an Innovation Committee with a sexier name.
Step 6: Expect quick results not perfection – Embrace failures as much as successes – Remember, the goal here is to take quick action on ideas. Think: weeks not quarters. The mission is to quickly turn a spark into an ember and see if it holds any promise. Failures are as valuable as successes. That’s not just a hollow mantra. You need to walk the walk in order for the flow of ideas to keep coming.
Step 7: Recognize potential and adjust – Give your Entrepreneur in Residence the latitude to adjust and adapt. What started out as one thing may morph into something entirely different. That’s okay and in some regards, desirable.
Step 8: Allow embers to grow but recognize when it is time to take them to the next level – This is squishy but there is a time to let an ember continue to grow and there is a time to remove it from the fire and bring the full resources of your organization to bear and turn it into an inferno. This should be a collaborative decision with your Entrepreneur in Residence. There is an art and a science to it and it largely depends on your working relationship with him or her.
Step 9: Rinse, repeat – This is not a one-time thing. This is continuous innovation. Learn from your successes. Learn from your failures. This is an ongoing and critical business function. Treat it as such. Remember, in this day and age, a company without meaningful innovation is just an engineless car sitting on the railroad track.
Step 10: Go do it! – You’re at the end of this article. What are you waiting for? Go call three people right now and tell them you’re committed to creating a new paradigm for innovation in your company. The second you do that you make it real. You bring it into existence. Say to yourself, “screw it, let’s do it!” Now go do it.
About Maroon Ventures
Maroon Ventures is a different kind of consultancy. We’re not focused in trading time for money. We’re not interested in putting legions of our consultants in your business operations. We are dedicated to working with committed companies to do great things. People ask us all the time, who are our ventures? The truth is, you are our ventures. Every single Maroon client is a venture of ours. We treat you like family and are dedicated to your success.
Categorised in: Articles
This post was written by Christopher Tippie