Corporate Innovation/Interview/

How to overcome the “innovation complacency” problem

Convincing a successful company to reinvent itself takes internal politics and careful messaging says Tendayi Viki, innovation consultant.

By Maija Palmer

Tendayi Viki, associate partner at innovation consultancy Strategyzer, says there’s one fundamental problem he comes up against when trying to get big companies to innovate: complacency.

Large companies are, by definition, successful. That’s how they got big in the first place. And psychologically, telling someone successful that what they have achieved is not enough, that they need to try harder still, is never a welcome one. There is no market for it.

“There are no self-help books for people who are already successful.”

“Corporate innovation has a complacency problem,” he says. “There are a lot of self-help books out there, for everything. But they are generally for people who are failing to lose weight, or find love or save money. There are no self-help books for people who are already successful,” observes Viki.

This is why innovation consultants spend a lot of time telling warning stories about companies that didn’t innovate in time — the stories of Kodak and Blockbuster failing to spot the innovations that would eventually put them out of business.

But the truth is that it is easy for corporate executives to look at the 90% failure rate of startups and feel not too worried.

Viki is looking for ways to communicate the message better. That’s why he was interested in talking about the Dominic Cummings problem. Boris Johnson’s former senior advisor wanted to radically reform the UK civil service but ended up making too many enemies in the system to be able to carry out the plans.

“Imagine you are a senior civil servant — you’ve been knighted — and then you have some former hack from Putney telling you you need to do things better. He’s right. But how should he communicate that?” Viki wonders.

Many of the conventional persuasion techniques — data and storytelling — don’t work, Viki says. So he is on a mission to uncover the DNA of people and companies who remain “uncomplacent”. This is the subject of his new book — working title Uncomplacent —a planned follow-up to Pirates in the Navy.

Pirates in the Navy already went into quite a lot of the details about how to get innovation ideas through at companies, based on Viki’s own experiences at Pearson and the many other companies that he worked with as a consultant.

“It is my ‘scars are beautiful’ book,” Viki laughs.

Good ideas are the smaller part of corporate innovation. The bigger part is internal politics.

The big learning was that good ideas are only a part (and by far the smaller part) of corporate innovation. The bigger part is internal politics. Viki learned that lesson — like most intrapreneurs — the hard way.

He and his team had created an innovation framework for Pearson, which they called the Lean Product Lifecycle. It was widely admired in innovation circles and won two industry awards. But they couldn’t get anyone internally at Pearson to use it.

“When we first met some resistance we thought: ‘We need some senior-level endorsement. We’ll come back with a bigger stick.’ So we got approval from the CFO and the CEO, and we went back with our bigger stick and people still went ‘meh’. Senior-level approval got them to listen to us, because they had to, but it didn’t make them do things differently.”

And getting the ‘big stick’ from the CEO can backfire badly.

“They don’t want you to come back whining about not being able to make it work,” says Viki. “We started to get comments from senior management like ‘If you don’t know how to work with people, maybe you need to get a different job.’”

So the team went back to the drawing board, hired someone who was amazing at relationship-building and tried a new approach which worked far better.

You can’t convince people of anything, you can only help them come to a new way of thinking by themselves.

Viki’s big realisation was that you can’t convince people of anything, you can only help them come to a new way of thinking by themselves. It was Buckminster Fuller, the American innovator, architect and writer, who said: “If you want to teach people a new way of thinking, don’t bother trying to teach them. Instead, give them a tool, the use of which will lead to new ways of thinking.”

Here are some of the tools that Viki tends to use:

  • Ask corporate executives to categorise the innovation efforts going on at the company into: efficiency innovations (small improvements that keep things ticking over) sustaining innovation (new services for existing customers) and transformational innovation (crazy ideas for new markets). Get them to write innovations down on post-it notes and put them on a board under the right category. “You see them try to stick the efficiency innovations in the transformational category but eventually they realise there is not any transformational innovation going on there.” says Viki. This opens up a conversation that stretches existing ideas.
  • Another technique is the pre-mortem. Get people to imagine they are trying to kill their own business — how would they do it? The exercise helps expose all the weaknesses and risks a company is facing. Then you ask what they have done about those in the past few years. If the answer is ‘nothing’, this helps open up another conversation.
  • Ask them to imagine changing some of the basic assumptions about the business. What if you couldn’t use the internet anymore? If you had to charge 100 times more than you do now? If you gave your core product away for free?
  • On a one-to-one level, when you are trying to get people at the company to back your innovation, make it about solving their problems, not yours. Before you ask them to do anything, ask them about what they are most worried about and think about how you can help with that.
  • The hardest part of innovation isn’t the new ideas — it’s killing ‘zombie projects’. These are initiatives that are creating no value but exist because they are the CEO’s pet project.“It is surprising how many zombies there are in companies,” says Viki. “These are projects that we know should be stopped but they manage to get money from somewhere. The manager [of the project] plays golf with someone, they know someone. This is how corporate politics works. “Killing a zombie like this is politically tricky, but can be done if you use a neutral evaluation model — a checklist to measure whether it is creating value and should be kept.”
  • You need an environment where you can create a lot of ideas and rapidly test them — plus a robust methodology to evaluate the projects — something Viki calls an Innovation Project Scorecard. This asks if the project is creating value for the customer. Is it solving a problem, saving someone pain? And is it possible to create a sustainable, profitable business model out of it?

These are all good tools, but Viki is still trying to put his finger on something deeper, that fundamental relentlessness that so often is the difference between a great company and an average one. You can teach people the tools and techniques, but if you can also get to the root of the motivation, it would be finding the Holy Grail of innovation consulting.

“I am looking into the psychological research on this and interviewing ‘uncomplacent’ heroes like David Beckham. What makes him, when he was the world’s most famous footballer and married to a pop star, stay later and arrive earlier to practice his free kick?” Viki says. “I want to understand that and then take that to the institutional level. It isn’t companies that innovate, it is the people within them.”

Maija Palmer is Sifted’s innovation editor. She covers deeptech and corporate innovation, and tweets from @maijapalmer

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