by Fabian Sautier — 11 September 2016
In our times of accelerated change, the business world has become obsessed with the holy grail of « Innovation ». With the emergence of digital and the massive arrival of thousands of small, agile companies challenging the status quo across all industries, market leaders and all other market players are now doomed to innovate.
Innovation can take many forms. It can be the result of actual tangible R&D efforts destined to come up with “the next big thing”, e.g. a new technology, a new molecule etc. that will lead to a new product. Innovation can also be a more efficient process or method allowing the application of a better solution to existing or new needs. Finally, innovation - as we can find it for example in consumer markets - can simply be the different conceptual expression of a new or existing idea, leveraged and generated by a powerful form of storytelling.
While those different forms of innovation exist, they all carry the same, common essence: innovation is something that is original, something that challenges the status quo, something that has been thought differently.
Aware of the necessity to innovate, companies put a lot of resources and efforts into it. They increase their R&D budgets. They collaborate with sources of innovation outside the company, such as startups, educational or research institutes. They fight desperately to sign the most creative and innovative people with the most diverse backgrounds in and outside their industry.
Yet, from my years of experience and observations I know that all those efforts to increase innovation within the company are seriously diminished by significantly verticalized organizations, in other words: by hierarchy.
In most companies, innovation processes are iterative and vertical. While the benefits of an iterative process seem obvious (you learn from your errors), I believe that a vertical process is not necessarily beneficial.
Essentially a vertical innovation process means that eventually, someone at a certain hierarchical level of the organization needs to validate, sign off on the innovation. “No validation, no innovation” is the credo. I believe that this process in many cases leads to an organization where
- an organization’s innovation speed slows down,
- the organization might forget who it innovates for,
- the organization ignores what the true role of hierarchy in the innovation process should be.
Let me explain. Most (traditional) businesses are built vertically - everyone has an n+1, who has an n+1, who has an n+1... Information travels vertically, validation goes vertically. This structure creates a culture where people higher in the hierarchy tend believe their role is to simply ‘validate or not’ the work of their teams instead of elevating it.
The position of an employee in the organisation chart essentially entitles him or her to decide what is good, innovative work and what is not. Yet, except some of the rare pearls like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, there is rarely a determined correlation between “n+1” and “world-class innovator”. There simply is not.
The result of this “your innovation will only see the light if your boss validates it”-approach is obvious: sometimes brilliant innovators at the lower end of the organisation chart will start to spend more time thinking about how to convince their superiors than their consumers. Because having their work validated becomes the priority versus creating breakthrough innovation for clients, i.e. they begin to innovate for their hierarchy instead of for their consumers.
Unless the hierarchy can mimic 100% the rational and emotional needs of the consumer that the innovation is dedicated too and therefore judge the potential of the innovation, this process is destined to fail.
Yet, this process is likely to create two very innovation-harming side effects. First, frustration within the employees who have their innovative work rejected by their n+1s. Secondly, vertical iterative validation processes are very time-consuming and losing time is precisely what a company striving towards breakthrough innovation cannot afford.
It is important to clarify that hierarchy does not by definition have to harm innovation. It precisely depends on the role hierarchy gives itself in the process, whether it will foster and drive or kill innovation. Whether it decides to become Steve Jobs - or not.
Have you identified the innovation killers within your organization? We would love to hear your perspective in the comments section below.
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