Established businesses struggle with maintaining organic innovation. They inevitably gravitate to the ‘operational’ side of their business looking to squeeze efficiency to meet important numbers. Innovation is messy and counter to those operational priorities. (see Roger Martin's The Design of Business)
Many companies have wrung innovation clear out of their business. They rely on buying promising late-stage start-ups or companies who have shown promise but lack market access or some other big company-benefit. Then they kill it. Or at the very least, they never quite apply the innovation to their core business.
It’s hard to delegate innovation to some external business, Silicon Valley incubator, corporate investment fund or innovation division. Once 'outside' the business, this source of innovation is just difficult to internalize. Delegating the problem may not be the best answer.
Rather business leaders should heal themselves.
Here are three exercises for business leaders interested in challenging their thinking in disruptive ways. Now, moving from disruptive exercise to actual innovation is a whole other matter. One invigorating workshop that gets folks jazzed about possible futures will do little without some form of sustained commitment. Still, it’s a start, and it’s a positive step to get internal business leaders feeling responsible for their future.
Create the right conditions
Each approach requires some best practices in running internal workshops. Small groups working interactively together, a professional moderator and process that neutralizes dominant egos or sacred cows, an environment away from the everyday – these are will important components that can increase the impact.
Three scenarios to spark creative and disruptive ideas
“We typically think of companies competing over products — the proverbial “build a better mousetrap.” But in today’s networked age, competition is increasingly over platforms. Build a better platform, and you will have a decided advantage over the competition.”
This quote from HBR.org on business as platform is typical of how some have articulated the notion that there is a thing that can be called a “platform” and that it can play a significant part in people’s lives and therefore may be a fresh and relevant way for businesses to think of themselves. Internet giants like Facebook and Google are often described as platforms. The way they create value seemingly from ether is very appealing to business leaders struggling to make their more ‘terrestrial’ business look sexy. Still, at its heart, the platform concept has provocative meaning.
“It’s important to remember that a platform is a business model, not just a piece of technology. A lot of people make the mistake of conflating a platform with a mobile app or a website, but a platform isn’t just a piece of software. It’s a holistic business model that creates value by bringing together consumers and producers.
Platform business models aren’t new. In fact, they’re as old as human civilization itself – all the way back to early marketplaces, bazaars and auction houses. Think of a bazaar in ancient Rome. The bazaar owner leases booths to merchants. The merchants put products in their booths. The bazaar owner then advertises to customers to come to the bazaar. The customers consume the goods that the merchants, the producers, are offering to sell. The platform, the bazaar, facilitates these exchanges by bringing together the consumers and producers.”
So, the workshop question becomes, “What would your business look like as a platform?” What type of open exchange would you develop?”
If you were a ruthless competitor, how would you leverage the known strengths and weaknesses of your current company to conquer it? What would you literally do to kill the competitive edge of your own company?
This is often the hardest exercise to run. Depending on the culture of candor inside your company, you may find it hard to get people to really be honest about these strengths (are they really that strong?) and weaknesses (can we really be that honest with each other?). If you can pull it off, you will likely end up with true insights and gems to guide your choices.
Imagine an alternate reality
This is part science fiction, part scenario-planning. Imagine a future where several emerging trends have actually manifested as market and consumer realities. The Internet of Things has exploded (in a positive way) creating a churn of available data that only those companies with strong data infrastructure and practices have harnessed for an advantage. Fossil fuels have finally been outlawed in favor of alternative energy sources. The rental and shared economies have spread well-beyond a single generation to become the “norms.”
Given a particular scenario or alternate reality, what would your business do to succeed?
Permission to imagine
All three workshop structures push business leaders to more candidly explore their company’s strengths and weaknesses. They tap into imagination well beyond finding the next 5% efficiency to balance an annual budget. These exercises put the responsibility for imagining the future of a business into the hands of those who know that business best by giving them permission and a framework to imagine something more, to be naïve and curious, to apply creative destruction to their own house.
Here are a few related resources