I wrapped up 2014 with a flurry of mind-opening interviews. I spoke to everyone from Steve Blank, the man who invented the “lean” concept, to the man who first applied that concept in a major corporation (GE). I spoke to chief innovation officers and entrepreneurs responsible for some of the most memorable
breakthroughs, from helping consumers clean their homes to insuring their cars. I even spoke to a man whose willingness to challenge his Goliath company’s bureaucracy, to outthink the system, allowed humankind to witness John Glenn land on the moon (a radio broadcast was originally scheduled).
As you gear up to take on whatever challenge is worthy of your energy and soul in 2015, know that if your mission is big, if success will require change, the system will inevitably try to stop you. But there is a path through the “corporate antibodies” that will rise to fight you.
Legendary coach John Wooden, who guided UCLA’s basketball team past unbelievable odds to win 10 NCAA champions over his 12-year career, advised that success depends on peace of mind, which in turn depends on preparation. So to help you prepare for next year’s battles, I’ve tried to squeeze 40 interviews, about 200 pages of notes, into the top 12 barriers (one per month) that innovators most often confront, along with some advice from the masters. Sleep on them over the holidays. Then wake up January 1 and put on your armor.
Getting permission to search
1. Your boss will tell you to focus on short-term goals and existing projects, not distract yourself looking for new ideas, so seek ideas that make short-term gains but secretly open up long-term possibilities. For example, a divisional head at Red Bull taught me to sell your idea on the brand value it creates now rather than the revenue it might generate down the line.
2. When you find an idea, your peers won’t understand it because they are stuck in an old mindset, so rephrase your proposal using language and metaphors that sound “normal,” the head of an internal venturing group suggested.
3. The company will demand a perfect business plan, when entrepreneurship is as “unstructured search,” so court a boss who will give you a little funding to experiment, as Blank advised me.
4. They will try to under-fund you, dooming you to failure, so multiple internal innovators suggested that you ask for a little bit more than you need.
5. They will staff you with inferior talent, so seek out and recruit your company’s rock stars on your own. That’s the tactic that the innovation head of a leading beauty company swears by.
6. The sales force will resist selling your product, preferring old, higher-margin products they already understand, warns Chuck House, serial innovator and author of Permission Denied, so plan to sell through marketing instead.
7. You will fail to embrace the full power of your company’s size, so use your company’s name recognition to get partner meetings. You are MORE than a start up. “When you want a meeting with a major partner, you can get the meeting” because you represent a big brand, the serial innovator from a major financial firm advised.
Running the business
8. Key gatekeepers, like legal and compliance, will hinder you with rigid rules, unwilling to be flexible, so build personal friendships in those areas early. Take them out to lunch. Win over their favor before you need them, advised the head of an internal venturing group of a leading bank.
9. Key decisions will take too long, so you will lose partners and customers to more agile competitors, so seek out early wins. Book orders. Win a roster of customers ready to pay, Blank suggested.
10. You will inevitably need to pivot, but then the executive supporters you thought you had will abandon you, so prepare them ahead of time. Lay out key decision points so then when you do change direction, they see it as having been part of the plan all along, as Wharton professor Ian MacMillan advises.
11. As you lose momentum, your best talent will desert you, tired of the fight, so keep sharing your wins. Email them every week with each new milestone achieved, each new client won, each positive comment you receive. This is how the CEO of Skullcandy, Hoby Darling, told me he maintained momentum for projects he led like Nike’s FuelBand and beyond.
Getting another year
12. If you do succeed, you will threaten other power centers in the company who will try to eliminate your funding next year, so work early to move your project into a business unit or profit center that won’t be hurt by your project’s growth, as the business unit head at a Fortune 100 client of mine does.
Don’t give up! Don’t give in. Next year I am committed to detail strategies to remove each of these barriers so you can break through the machine to produce beautiful things.