Every week I interview five to 10 innovators and innovation experts as part of my book project. Each time I ask the same question: In your experience, what are the greatest barriers to innovative ideas realizing their potential inside large organizations?
I’ve tabulated about 50 distinct barriers so far.
But what is most fascinating is that the answers are shifting.
During my first few interviews I almost always got the same response: big companies can’t be agile because they are stuck in what Clayton Christensen termed “The Innovator’s Dilemma”. They are too invested in the old to get excited by the new.
But probe deeper and you see this answer is often an easy excuse, an answer that resonates with others but is not actually the root cause. You see, large companies DO innovate. Progressive Insurance gave us Snapshot, McDonalds invented RedBox, and Apple produced the iPhone, iPad, etc.
The fact is, as human beings we are not driven by finding the truth; rather, we are driven to find a satisfying answer. As long as our answer helps us explain how the world works, fits with what we observe, and enables us to better predict what is going to happen, we stop searching for BETTER answers. We once thought Earth was a flat disc that the sun rotated around. That answer was good enough because it fit what we observed. It was not until scientists applied more advanced methods and technology (like telescopes) that we started thinking, “Wait a minute, this flat Earth idea doesn’t really match with what we are seeing in the skies.”
The answer is not the truth. It’s a word or tool or concept that we use to try to explain the truth. There is a Buddhist saying that when you point at the moon, don’t confuse your finger for the moon. In other words, don’t confuse the language you use to point to the truth with the truth itself.
And this is where I believe we are in the inquiry into whether big companies can innovate. Crowds of people are getting excited by words like “innovator’s dilemma” and “corporate anti-bodies” and “agile” – words that support the view that big companies are fundamentally challenged in their ability to introduce new things. I believe what we are experiencing now is not the truth, but people starting to convene around an exciting idea that helps explain the frustration they feel in their efforts to introduce new ideas inside their corporations. We are like a farmer who likes the flat-Earth theory because it helps us measure our land and predict the seasons. We want to hold on to that false model of the world because we feel discomfort whenever we have to change our beliefs. We have a belief that works, that is comforting, that feeds us with a sense of knowing.
But look around.
It is simply not true.
There is enough evidence against the apparent “truth” that big organizations cannot introduce big ideas.