Innovation That Scales, Part 2

In our previous post we discussed how leadership calls for “innovation that scales” and “billion dollar ideas” can have the opposite effect than the one intended, and we introduced some ways in which leaders and practitioners can productively increase the scaling potential of their innovations. In this post we want to further clarify the relationship between innovation and scale and discuss, by way of an industry example, what can be done to ease the path of promising innovations towards acceptance and integration by the larger organization.

The typical goal of innovation, as we discussed previously, is to create new or original “things” including: products, services, experiences, business models, processes and/or other aspects of an organization’s operations, while the goal of scaling is to create more of existing “things” as accurately and cost-efficiently as possible. Most new things, however, fail to cross the divide between innovation teams and the scaling, operational ones. Innovators complain that the operators are too risk-averse to try anything new, while the operators complain that the innovators are too impractical and that their concepts will never work.

One of us had this exact experience at DIRECTV where Kristin led an IT Innovation team. DIRECTV established an IT innovation team in 2008 and staffed it with talented developers and hackers. We got a lot of employee engagement through crowdsourcing and Shark Tank competitions but neither actually produced much you could define as innovation. The majority of the team’s most innovative work never saw the light of day, with our core Development and Operations teams finding every possible reason to keep it from moving forward: they weren’t involved, it would risk production standards, it wasn’t on our standard technology stack, and on, and on.  Before long we’d earned a reputation as troublemakers and disruptors - and not in a good way!

After 7 years of limited success, our SVP of Strategy & Innovation realized that the core challenge of innovation was not a technology problem, but a people problem.  He turned to Kristin to assess the gaps and determine how to make innovation a core IT capability. She quickly realized that the team had approached innovation in a way that was creating unhealthy tension between them and the parts of the business responsible for developing and managing products at scale.

In the team’s desire to be entrepreneurial they’d shut themselves off from the teams that could actually make innovation a reality: development and operations teams.  We lost sight of the importance of each teams’ role in making innovation come to life… or at least that’s how everyone else felt! IT team members saw innovation as a fun and creative break from their day job, not a discipline. We had done nothing to educate organizational leaders on how to manage innovation teams and processes. And lastly, despite the fact that we wanted to be metrics driven (good!), we aligned ourselves to metrics that ultimately we had no control over (bad!).

Over the next few months Kristin led the team to radically change how they worked with other parts of the organization.

First, we changed the makeup of our teams. Where previously we imagined ourselves as upstream and independent of everyone else, we now saw ourselves as inextricably linked. We included core Development and Operations specialists from the get-go. And we kept the team intact from initial concept through production deployment. Within a short period of time the tension that we had experienced with the “downstream” departments dissipated.

Second, we provided innovation training to people across the organization, with two primary focus areas, discipline and leadership. We demonstrated that innovation is not all post-its and beanbags, and that the “fun” part of innovation is short lived, quickly giving way to hard problem solving. We also taught leaders to effectively manage the discipline, including the differences between innovation and operational thinking and incentives and rewards.

Third, we changed how we led the teams. Although the teams themselves stayed intact throughout the lifecycle, initiative leadership transferred to the department responsible for the current phase of work. This way the leaders developed ownership and engagement in a way they never would for a “not invented here” product.

Fourth, we changed our metrics. Initially, we had overstepped our bounds by measuring business value generated by innovation, even though we really had no control over that process from beginning to end. Instead, we focused on measuring the number of viable prototypes our team built, a realistic goal that we could demonstrate progress against and improve morale and motivation among the group as well as satisfying our leadership.  We didn’t let go of the ultimate goal of value generated through innovation. Instead we shared it with our Development and Operations teams who ultimately held that responsibility for producationalizing an innovative idea. This made innovation a team sport and we could all say we had a part in making DIRECTV more innovative!

Of course this is not the only model for innovation and scale that works, but for any initiative which is focused on internal innovation and production, up-front and cross-lifecycle engagement can be a powerful tool in avoiding or at least minimizing the impact of corporate antibodies on the new and unfamiliar.

In our next post in the series we will introduce the “3 Geared Company” model for Innovation, Scale and Maturity.


Co-authored with Kristin Raza