By now, we all know the story: The lone entrepreneur arrives on the scene, ready to shake up the industry with his brilliant innovation. He heroically battles naysayers and the risk-averse to bring his new idea to fruition. It’s a smash hit that radically transforms his industry — and the way we live.
Except, that story isn’t really true. Sure, it happens occasionally, but according to research conducted by Dr. Kaihan Krippendorff, it’s the exception rather than the rule.
Krippendorff, a former McKinsey consultant and the founder and CEO of growth strategy consulting firm Outthinker, spent years studying employee-driven innovation. He interviewed more than 150 intrapreneurs. His conclusion: employees have driven more than 70 percent of society’s most impactful innovations over recent decades.
“Were it not for employee-innovators, we would live in a radically inferior world,” Krippendorff says. “You would have no mobile phones, or internet to connect it to, or email to send; if you got sick, your doctors would have no MRI or stent to offer.”
Krippendorff explores his research further in his latest book, Driving Innovation from Within: A Guide to Internal Entrepreneurs. Below, we talk to Krippendorff to learn more about the real story behind innovation and what organizations can do to unleash the inventive power of their workers in the trenches.
For example, you share the story of Swoon Reads, a crowd-sourced manuscript discovery initiative at Macmillan Publishers. You note that “Swoon Reads’s path from idea to realization involved none of the formal structures or practices espoused by innovation experts. Instead, the journey was entirely spontaneous, organic, self-directed, and, for much of its path, done without the approval of funding or extra time. It was a labor of love, a movement generated by a group of passionate employees who saw a possibility and worked collectively to realize it.”
I wonder, then: Where did the “formal structures or practices espoused by innovation experts” come from if they don’t seem to serve the reality of how innovation happens, and why are we still in thrall to those structures and practices today?
Kaihan Krippendorff: I think we are enthralled with formal innovation structures and practices for two reasons.
The first is that these are things leadership can control fairly easily. Establishing an “incubation lab” or opening an office near Silicon Valley are things that leaders in an organization can fund and direct to happen, but establishing a culture and organizational context that encourages spontaneous innovation is harder and takes longer.
The second reason is that formal innovation practices are more likely to attract the attention of the press and investors, which naturally motivates leadership to focus on them. The allure of “innovation theater” is too strong for many companies to resists.
RC: You note that the disconnection between “the stories we like to tell [about innovation] and reality comes at a cost.” Can you say a bit about what the cost is?
KK: Years ago, I ran a nonprofit that helped at-risk children who would be first-generation college students make it through high school into college. We found that one of the powerful things you can do to get these students to see college as a possibility was to expose them to mentors who shared stories of what it was like to complete college.
The stories we hear influence what we believe to be possible. The fact that we don’t tell stories about employee-innovators, and instead talk almost exclusively about entrepreneurs, essentially communicates to would-be internal entrepreneurs that they are not meant to be the innovators. We need employees to innovate. They have historically contributed more than 70 percent of society’s most impactful innovations. We should be studying and celebrating employee-driven innovation because we all need employee-driven innovations.
RC: You write,”[W]hen we study what actually makes great companies great, we see that success depends more on the founder’s ability to create a system in which employees can bring ideas to reality. The ideas that turn organizations into market-shaping disruptors often come years after the original founder’s vision.”
I’m really intrigued by this notion of “the founder’s ability to create a system in which employees can bring ideas to reality.” Could you elaborate a bit on what such a system entails? Read more here…