Creating Fertile Ground for Innovation
A guide to fostering innovation from within
There is a parable in the Bible called “The Parable of the Sower”. The parable describes a “sower”, who casts seeds into various places. Some take root and others don’t. What causes some to flourish while others fail to grow is not the seeds themselves, but the ground upon which they fall.
I find this to be a good metaphor for innovation. Innovation doesn’t just happen. It needs fertile ground and the right conditions to nurture it and to help it grow. Where you cast the seeds of your ideas is critical to whether they blossom or wither. Even the best team with the best idea will fail without a good foundation.
Conditions for Innovation
Culture: Innovation is not a separate area of the company. Innovation should not be cordoned off and set to one side. The best innovation happens because the people closest to the product see an opportunity for an extension, a new job to be done, or an organic behavior that can be amplified. Often, companies build “innovation groups” to check that box, as if it is something that can just be scratched off a list and then dismissed. The problem is that they aren’t building it into the culture. Instead, innovation needs to be seen as an inherent mindset and a way of working.
Leadership: Strong people need to be focused on a hard problem. Though general innovation should not be a separate team on an island, when a specific, real user problem has been identified, the best way to get started on it is to assemble a small team of people (five to seven) who are passionate about solving it. Amazon has a culture of taking someone successful, allowing them to be a single-threaded owner and giving them the autonomy to pull together a team from different areas to tackle a specific user issue. This allows them to calve off new teams from existing ones and scale quickly to work on new “jobs to be done” for users.
Time and Space: Freedom begets innovation, and constraints strangle it. Too many constraints and requirements make it hard to move fast, iterate, and learn. Innovation requires a level of freedom to seek product-market fit, wherever it appears. Structure is important, but it should be used to guide innovation, rather than force it. How the process occurs within those guardrails shouldn’t be micromanaged. It is important that everyone agrees on what these guardrails are upfront, and then lets small teams explore and build. Tencent’s CEO encouraged his internal teams to compete with each other to see what messaging app would win (ref). WeChat, now China’s dominant messaging app, was built in three months with just seven engineers (ref). Just like Google’s 20 Percent Time or Facebook’s Hackathons, companies can create space to innovate as part of their culture. This reduces the overhead and scrutiny while giving teams more freedom to try new things, which can eventually get funded and scale.
Reward: What you celebrate is what you get. At Facebook, the story of a small, scrappy team changing the industry is part of the cultural lore. The origin story of many of the company’s most important products, from News Feed to Stories to Marketplace to Dating, started not from the top, but from a small group of people who thought of an idea and brought it to life. Innovation is celebrated and ingrained in how the company talks to employees about products and success. It is not about having the biggest team but making the biggest impact. Facebook celebrates people who build and iterate in new areas, even if it takes a while. That makes room for those who really want to take on a problem and lets them know that their work will be rewarded.
Technology: Iteration speed is equal to learning speed. The best ground for innovation is one where the technology is already built so that any small team can build a prototype in a short period of time. The Facebook Marketplace tab, for instance, went from idea to shipping to several cities in two months. It was rolled out to five countries six months later, and 30 more countries less than a year after that. This is an example of why the base framework is so important. When your systems are not set up for iteration, every shot is precious and expensive. But if you can take five shots in the time it takes someone else to take one, you can shoot, readjust, shoot again, and continue until you get it on target. Teams with iteration speed have the advantage because they can iterate and learn quickly enough to pivot as needed.
How Innovation is Stifled
“We tried that already.” Often, when a team wants to build something new, they hear skeptics say this. WeChat was competing with an internal team that owned the biggest desktop chat app in China, yet they persisted and won. Marketplace was Facebook’s fourth foray into commerce. This illustrates how companies can be the beneficiaries of their own history - or the victims of it. Learn the lessons of the past, but don't overlearn them. Often companies fall victim to the mindset of, “We tried that and it didn’t work,” without understanding why they failed. Sometimes the answer is not “no”; it is “not now.” Perhaps the earlier tries happened at the wrong time, with the wrong team, or using the wrong approach. A successful product is made up of three things: a strategy, tactics, and execution. A failure in one does not mean failure in all. Unpack it, understand where things went wrong, and then free teams from that burden.
“That is not how it is done here.” Companies tend to have fixed ideas of what works and what doesn’t, what their core market is, and what it isn’t. However, just because something has never been done before, that doesn’t mean teams should not try it. Companies with innovative cultures are willing to disrupt themselves to force evolution, rather than wait for someone to disrupt them. Consider “red teaming” your product. Imagine that a formidable, well-funded competitor has entered your space. What are your vulnerabilities? How would you respond? Kodak saw digital photography coming decades before others, but they lacked the ability to pivot to address it (ref). Innovation requires thinking differently and forcing yourself to think outside of your comfort zone about how someone else might look at your product and space.
“We have a lot riding on this.” The pressure to succeed often comes with strings attached. This results in executive oversight, which in turn results in more reviews and approvals. More reviews mean less time testing and learning, and more time driving consensus. There are many teams innovating at the same time, and most of the time, they will fail. But too much pressure means being more buttoned-up, and being more buttoned-up means more delays. Innovation means building products with minimum reviews, and maximum iteration, because this is how true, unrestricted creativity happens. Leadership input is primarily advisory, not imperative.
“Failure is not an option.” To innovate is to fail. Most teams will fail in an innovation culture. But some teams will have outsized success. It is a portfolio. For every major product, there are many that don’t make it. A great team is one that fails quickly or succeeds quickly, not one that wins every time. Many companies create a culture where innovation is impossible. They overfund the team, celebrate it, give it lofty goals, and then when a team fails to meet a milestone, they are immediately punished and their budget cut. What high-performing employees would want to work on these areas when there are safer, less stressful, and more rewarding areas in which to invest their career? Inoculate those who take bigger risks and give them the space to fail and try again. If all of the best people cluster at the core of your product, you will have a strong core, but others will attack from your flank.
Innovation does not happen by accident. It is about creating the right conditions and the right mindset: the fertile ground where it can flourish. Building that into your culture enables and encourages innovation, and ensures that you continue to serve your customers’ evolving needs.