Don't grease the eel

Being back in a start-up is an interesting place from an innovation point of view.  When I was with Novell in the SuSE Linux business, we struggled to innovate as a company for all the familiar "dilemma" reasons.  We try to innovate everyday (sometimes more than we probably should).  I think we’ve so far successfully struck a good balance of innovation and focus.

The question I have is how one can effectively continue to innovate as a company grows and begins to get entrenched in its own success.  Is this a function of the right people?  Outside catalysts? Autonomous units? Innovation teams (yikes)? Or is it a "process" that can be defined?

I had an email exchange with a good friend of mine the other day.  Ben has a fantastic background as both a big company executive and as a successful entrepreneur (not an easy task).  He pointed out that when you’re entrenched in running the business day-to-day its incredibly difficult to separate yourself from the business of today and look to the business of tomorrow.  It seems like this is directly at the point of my innovation question.

It strikes me that in order to be innovative as an organization you have to set up a framework and a culture that encourages entrepreneurial deconstruction.  This deconstruction is required in order to find new ways, methods, partnerships, markets, and opportunities.  You also need to hire business "athletes" and make sure they work alongside subject matter experts.  Moreover, as a leader, you need to spend the time and energy to network both inside and outside your focus industry or market.

One of the things I hear a lot when I spend time with other executives is how hard we all find it to network effectively.  Its time-consuming and takes us away from our number one priority: running the business.  On the other hand, I can’t tell you how many times I also hear (often in the same breath),that it sure would be nice to talk to others that are facing similar challenges but not directly connected to our respective businesses.

I think of the innovation question as analogous to mountain biking.  In order to go really fast and stay on the trail, you have to constantly be looking right in front of you and way down the trail at the same time..  easier said than done.

** a day after I wrote this post, I came across this podcast from Wharton on Innovation.  The recording and transcript is here.