Why Big Business Fails at Innovation

By Henry Doss

The general tendency of things throughout the world is to render mediocrity the ascendant power among mankind.  -- John Stuart Mill

Big businesses don't seem to be very innovative. An informal glance around the big business landscape won't reveal much in the way of innovation beyond perhaps the routine adoption of a new technology, a bit of chasing the most current business model paradigm or acronym, or maybe rejiggering organizational charts here and there. But, innovation?  Not so much.

A little speculation about why big business doesn't seem to be innovative might lead to any number of hypotheses. Perhaps it is the case that large-scale business is based on risk mediation, so don't look for much strategic risk-taking. Or it might be that because big businesses are so technology dependent -- and more often than not, legacy technology-shackled -- that you simply won't find much innovation requiring significant (read, "expensive") system changes. Or maybe regulatory constraints put a damper on imagination and creativity or anything that smacks of drawing outside the lines. Or, a little cynicism just might suggest that for the most part most big businesses are at their core a commodity enterprise, with a relatively sticky customer base that rarely leaves; consequently, there is little motivation to pursue game-changing product or service innovation.

There are plenty of other speculations to go around, all of them in some measure based on market realities. But these speculations and constraints don't speak directly to the challenge of innovation in big organizations, in spite of the measure of truth they all contain. They miss the mark because none of these characteristics of large-scale enterprise have anything to do with the presence -- or absence -- of innovation, necessarily. They are all simply prevailing conditions -- indisputably real, a part of the landscape. These conditions and constraints, in and of themselves, are not the problem. Innovation, if it is to operate as a constant in any business has to be in the real context, of real conditions, in the real world. So, yes, big businesses are constrained in very specific ways -- technology, regulatory environment, capital, risk. But it's not these real-world constraints that inhibit innovation. It's business culture.

If you look around inside any large-scale operation nowadays, you'll probably find any number of innovation-labeled initiatives -- accelerators, incubators, labs and so on. You might even find an innovation officer or an office of innovation. Most of these efforts or initiatives will be managed and structured in ways that are similar to other external supplier relationships, even if the office or initiative dedicated to innovation happens to be internal.  That is, what you'll find is that in all of these cases, innovation is being delegated, or outsourced, or in some manner separated from day-to-day operations, as if innovation is something that happens there, but not here. The challenge of course, is that here -- inside the organization's culture -- is exactly and precisely where innovation will occur.

There is a strategic distinction that helps to better understand the strong, direct correlation between innovation and culture, and this distinction is critical to understanding and engineering broad cultural change: That is the distinction between innovation and output, or between innovation and invention. Output -- the inventions, ideas, and new things that can be seen and touched and measured -- is something organizations may very well be able to buy. Businesses buy output every single day: newly invented technologies, or new management paradigms from consulting firms, or things --  like merchandising or signage. In fact, big businesses can be very, very good at establishing powerful relationships with multiple suppliers who are providing inventive, new output. And there's nothing wrong with that.

But two deep, strategic challenges present themselves in this outsource/purchase approach to innovation:

Herding:  When businesses outsource innovation and limit themselves to the purchase of innovative output from suppliers, they inevitably position themselves in the "me too" category. If there is a truly innovative product, strategy, market positioning or management paradigm out there to be bought and sold, then of course everyone is in the market for it. And inevitably this competition to buy the newest innovation leads to purchase herding behavior, with everyone leaping into the market place to "buy innovation." As an example, one need only think of the early days of data mining technologies, and the rush to buy data innovation (read: "data technology") followed by a long, long period when deployment of these purchased technologies languished in an operational no-man's land. It was a case of "great output," followed by "low innovation" -- at least insofar as execution is concerned.

Optimization:  Even if it were the case that somehow an organization managed to buy into an innovative "thing" and somehow managed to be first to market with a particular innovation, the deployment of that innovation is directly dependent on its culture. It is one thing to have a new technology, or a new product, and quite another to take that technology or product and deploy it with efficiency, focus, drive and commitment. A moment of honest, deep reflection will reveal the truth of this problem. How many strategies (service differentiation), or technologies (call center interactive technologies) or products (mobile payments) come onto the market as potentially innovative solutions, and then stall or limp along in the deployment? Most? All? The difficulty sits inside the conflation of output and innovation -- "the thing" and culture. Owning the most innovative product in the world has little real value without the cultural ability to absorb, institutionalize and deploy that product.

Would you like to break free from the herd? Check out our Innovation Culture and Innovation Fellows programs. Our Rainforest Immersion is a powerful first step toward building your innovation culture.