5 Ways to Apply Innovation in Your Role (No Matter the Company)
I’ve had a realization recently:
You don’t need to work for an innovative company to be innovative.
This statement might be obvious to some, but to me it was revelatory.
Prior to working at High Alpha, I spent 10 years in Corporate America. Each morning, I’d wake up hoping that today would be the day that I found an email in my inbox from the CEO proclaiming: “Today our company is going to be innovative.” It would go on to say employees could attend d.school, we were free to do ethnographic research with customers, and when we were finished, we could all enjoy a nice meal in the cafeteria… where the chefs we’d poached from Google would be preparing lunch. And so, for the first decade of my career, I expended my efforts attempting to make my companies’ cultures more innovative in hopes that one day I’d succeed in bringing about this grand vision.
But then, last April, I read an article in Fast Company entitled “The Messy Business of Reinventing Happiness.” The article detailed anonymous interviews of highly-placed sources within Disney, each unpacking the politics and struggles of rolling out wholesale innovation across what is arguably one of the most innovative companies in the world. For me, this exposed an assumption I had wrong for all those years: I used to think that if only I could “make my company innovative,” then things would be different… I’d be valued as a creative, my company would accept change more easily, we’d create products that our customers desired more…
…but I realized the “Innovation” that I’ve been sold is a lie. The glossy-covered images of beautiful new products or revolutionary design leaders are not Innovation. These are a collection of success stories —many of which happened despite a company’s best judgement — packaged up in a compelling narrative.
Innovation is not a state of being.
Innovation is always disruptive; it always challenges the status-quo. Innovation never exists in equilibrium within corporations, which are inherently incentivized by bottom-line metrics and a constant focus on ROI. Innovation is messy and ugly—it involves conflict and judgement calls, a strong culture, and talented people.
Innovation is about doing — tell your beautiful story later.
The revelation for me was that I’d been waiting for my company to “become innovative,” when really I just needed to stop waiting and start doing. Ironically, it took me leaving Corporate America for the aspirational startup to realize just how much power I had to be innovative in my past roles. So I’d like to share five takeaways on innovation that anyone can apply in their role—no matter the company they work for.
1. Find comfort with ambiguity.
At High Alpha, we’re aligned around a core belief that’s fundamentally different than most businesses: ideas are alive until they’re dead. Many corporations desire clarity over ambiguity so much that they set the burden of proof to give life to an idea so high that most never make it out of the delivery room. At High Alpha, we use increasing hurdles to test our ideas in age-appropriate ways, fleshing them out a little at a time until they’re fully formed. Many people’s biggest struggle when facing ambiguity is their ability to make decisions with small datasets. Yet it’s amazing how directionally-correct answers alone are enough to progress an idea substantially.
For example, consider a directional pricing study for a new concept: does it have a $100 or $10,000 price-tag? With just an order-of-magnitude decision, there’s so much you already know about this product — you know the number of sales people you have to hire and the level of their experience, the title of the buyer and where she or he falls in the organization, and the number of products that have to be sold before you break-even. All this from “crayon math!”
The goal when faced with ambiguity is to determine the next most important decision that’s required and the minimum amount of data required to make that decision.
2. Master the “pivot.”
As an engineer, I’ve been trained to identify and mitigate risk. My education leads me to believe that it takes quite great skill to kill problems, which is true when those problems exist in a new product. But at High Alpha, our ideas are so nascent that we believe anyone with a marker and a whiteboard for an hour can kill an idea.
Instead, we choose to flex a different muscle: finding the pivot. We believe it takes great skill to determine the “nugget of truth” that exists within an idea and focusing all your resources to build a business around that.
Take Pinterest, for example. Pinterest began as Tote, an app that allowed users to track the price of online goods. When Tote studied their users, they realized that women were filling their bags with aspirational items like Gucci purses and waiting for the price to fall below a minimum mental threshold, which rarely occurred. As a result, their bags remained full, serving as aspirational image boards. Thus Pinterest pivoted to embrace the value their customers had identified in their idea.
3. Realize thinking only goes so far.
When faced with a new idea, my first reaction is to think harder about it. I want to believe that I’m “smart enough” to “crack it,” but this creates a momentum for insular thinking. Instead, it’s essential to get a prototype in front of customers ASAP. This exercise uncovers painpoints, opportunities, and insights that you and your team would never have been able to discover by thinking alone because the customer’s viewpoint is not within your team’s limited experience set.
IDEO calls this idea “Fail fast, fail often.” This isn’t wrong, but I’m choosing to describe the concept in a different way to address the problem itself: a business’s momentum toward insular thinking. At High Alpha, we engage customers in ideation from the earliest time possible throughout product development.
During Sprint Week, a time when we as a company move from ideation to business concept, we seed each team with subject-matter experts — people who experience the pain in their daily jobs that this business will solve for and who can provide relevant feedback to the group. Later, when we launch a new company, we often do so in private beta, going deep with a few companies to address their painpoints and create intense value prior to proliferating across many customers.
4. Don’t ask for permission.
There are a ton of legends of rogue employees championing their ideas through a large organization — the creation of 3M Scotch tape and the genesis of the Lamborghini Miura, to name a few. I think the reason these stories persist is because the idea of breaking the rules resonates with people. Many of us love the idea of the Lone Innovator pushing back against The Man, ultimately bringing about their vision despite the corporate nay-sayers.
Working for a startup, I realized that for entrepreneurs there are no rules, only the ones you make for yourself. Certain “procedural” rules have to exist — they ensure the products we create are safe, for example — but those aren’t the ones people want to break. They want to break “perceived” rules, rules of culture, and “the way we do things here.” Ironically, the only thing keeping you from breaking perceived rules is yourself!
In my first role at Honda, I was assigned to design the trunk of an Acura at a time when trunk storage systems were the new cool thing. My design training suggested that I ought to get customer input and since I didn’t know any better, I staked out a grocery store parking lot (with their permission, though not my manager’s) and observed customers — who didn’t think I was crazy — as they used their trunks. I gained some interesting insights that I would not have otherwise; for example, people use the back seat footwell for groceries rather than their trunks so their groceries don’t fall over and slide around while driving. When I got back to the office, my co-workers made fun of me for weeks! (Let’s just say that the “stalker” jokes and nicknames lasted for a while.)
Over time, I stopped doing this type of research, partly because of the hard time my co-workers gave me and partly because I became a manager and “didn’t have time for that stuff anymore.”
I realize now that it’s our own egos that hold us back from breaking perceived rules — we’re worried that we won’t be taken seriously by others, that we’ll stand out, that we’ll get in trouble, that we’ll be viewed differently by others. As individuals, we have to put aside social acceptance for customer insight; as managers, we have to provide autonomy to our reports to enable them to gather “ground truth.”
5. “Design” your team.
Since moving into a startup, I’ve noticed how small the startup community is: everyone knows everyone and, when hiring, “fit” is often bandied around as an assessment criteria. To a corporate guy, my initial reaction was how nepotistic this kind of hiring practice sounded. But consider this: if you were about to risk it all — building a business from your own idea and with your own money — and you could only choose 5 people to help you, who would you hire? I bet you already know! You’ve worked with them before. They’re smart, functionally-capable people, but also “power players” who can handle multiple tasks outside their subject-matter expertise: “T-shaped” people.
The false assumption in corporations is to believe that since you’re in a department that you can’t pick your team. But there’s always some new strategic initiative, some cross-department taskforce, some new 6S project. Rather than just picking anybody, reach deep into your rolodex and find the best people for that team who will create a group dynamic in which innovation can thrive.
It’s inspiring to work at High Alpha, where I can put these practices to use every day and constantly refine my ability to innovate with the support of my co-workers. But make no mistake, High Alpha is still a business. We are in the business of creating new companies and we are charged with creating returns for our investors. As a result, we still face the pressures that every company feels — the need to focus on day-to-day business operations rather than the “next big thing.” It would feel safe for us to place small bets on “easy wins,” but then we would not achieve the big things we set out to in the first place. The difference between us and other companies is that our core values, our talented staff, and our business processes help us lean into tension between operation and innovation—holding us accountable for keeping Innovation a top priority.