Only Big Companies Do Innovation

by | Dec 9, 2019

I hear about innovation a lot because of my job. Plus, it is hard to avoid seeing news or comments about champions of modern innovation––Musk, Bezos, et al.. I asked a friend who works for a start-up in Silicon Valley about innovation and if her and her colleagues talk about it. She was bemused by my question. No, it isn’t something they talk about, they just do their work! I know from having spent time in that part of the world that her reaction is common. Besides, folks in Silicon Valley think everything they do is by default ‘disruptive’ innovation.

I train innovators––scientists, and engineers––on how to develop and convey their work to stakeholders and partners inside and outside their organisations. My clients work mostly in R&D centers of big corporations. The talk in these corporations on innovation is usually about its insufficient level, on how to speed up the process, or the need to create products/services that generate gazillions of dollars. A lot of time is spent attending conferences on innovation and consulting experts on the topic.  I wonder why is it that smaller companies and startups don’t talk about innovation, yet are responsible for the most disruptive type, the holy grail that all companies strive for?

Reflection, A Key Component

I recently read in the book The Art of Taking Action: Lessons From Japanese Psychology that the foundation of a meaningful life (which includes work) is: reflection + risk = contribution.  A key component of innovation or any creative process is reflection: time to observe, question and ruminate. It made me think of the innovators I work with who are primarily motivated by doing meaningful work––they want to make the world a better place. They spend years training, to find work in some of the world’s biggest companies with top class resources, in order to apply their expertise to working on real and big problems that affect millions of people around the world.  Yet when they get to these companies their days are taken up by meetings, procedures, and an army of stakeholders to deal with. Work is done in open plan offices with a constant flow of solicited and unsolicited conversations in person or via enterprise messaging apps. Quiet time means a pair of headphones blaring music. Thus, time to reflect is hard to come by. Furthermore, with many stakeholders dedicated to protecting the firm’s interests risk taking is discouraged, and consequently the innovator’s appetite and ability to do the type of work that produces disruptive innovation is diminished. But how can this be true if big companies such as IBM and Google are top of the global patent league table which is often referred to as proof of innovation in companies? It is a misconception that the number of patents is equivalent to innovation. Patents are indicative of inventions, and inventions don’t necessarily turn into (successful) products and services which equals innovation. For example, Xerox’s research center PARC invented the graphical user interface but it was Apple, back then a start-up, that turned it into the Mac, a highly successful innovative product.

Start-ups and smaller companies emerge out of deep reflection and willingness to take risk. Their risk taking ability is sharpened constantly by having to figure out how to achieve goals with limited resources. The outcome, their contribution, can be substantial and turn them into big companies. Once their big company status is established, they too will start talking a lot about innovation instead of just doing.

Hard To Do

Why do big companies with their treasure chest of inventions find it harder ‘to do’ innovation? Smaller companies and startups usually only work on one thing with deep and relentless focus and as part of one team. Big companies work on many things, in disparate silos and with competing teams, making it harder to create the connections that can transform inventions to innovation. Another barrier to the transformation of invention to innovation is the inability to perform ‘deep work’. The author Cal Newport describes in his book Deep Work that to produce work of high value, the kind that solves problems such as climate change or creating a revolutionary new programming language, it is necessary to eliminate or minimize distractions that plague the modern work environment such as social media, texts, emails and meetings. Big companies by their nature generate a lot of emails, instant messages and meetings.

Since the present work environment isn’t going to change any time soon, I ask myself often how can I best assist my clients to better fulfill their calling in such an atmosphere? I focus on equipping them with tools to reflect more and take risks within big company frameworks. So that rather than talking about innovation, they just do it!

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