30 Jul How to Change a Company’s Point of View with Innovation
Post written by Ronald Amodeo
A great weakness of corporate innovation is how quickly it's applied to the easiest problems. If product development is wanted, start an innovation team. If IP is escaping, capture and commercialize it with an innovation process. If investments are too conservative, create an innovation fund to increase "risk" by seeding new ventures. We see corporate innovation fixating on customer experiences, reducing costs through experiments and prototypes, and imagining futures that will likely never happen (but worry everyone).
Don't misunderstand. Executing the activities above is very challenging. But on the tree of corporate complexity, these are low hanging fruit. Why else would corporate innovation efforts be so episodic -- supported in times of plenty, neglected in times of stress?
Consider this: when times are bad, companies focus on things they think are really important: changing their organizational structure, streamlining operations, building a new financial strategy, or doubling down on their most profitable businesses.
Rarely does innovation get invited to these discussions.
Even more off-limits is the corporate identity. For well-established organizations that have grown through decades of hard work, the corporate identity (what we do, who we serve, why it's important) is the most carefully protected "project" of all. Only a few at the top have the ability to make semantic adjustments. Like a percussion ensemble at a whispering contest, innovators are not welcome.
Why? If innovation is the perfect hedge against aging products and services, then it should also be a reasonable safeguard against corporate aging, where points of view around operations, structure, strategy, policies and identity easily get hardened and "who knows best" becomes assumed. Yet, though the external world is constantly being reinvented, leaders of mature companies keep the most vital parts of their organization in stasis, isolated from innovation's disruptive influence.
Some have written that this is inevitable, that these companies are unable to behave differently. Their success comes from repeating what works, leading to codified structures and structural inertia. Combine that with the concentrated, amplified thinking of a small group of leaders evolutionarily selected for their commitment to what works, and you've got the perfect recipe for nourishing dogma and an unwavering point of view. All that despite decades of research into corporate failure that show resistance to change is what breaks the unbreakable (meaning the best companies do fail). Nothing should be sacrosanct. But many things are, regardless.
Innovation's hardest and most meaningful task, therefore, is being relevant to the least accessible areas of the organization, the ones protected from change. It must deliver new points of view that create the improbable: new thinking. But how?
Earlier this year, two researchers discovered that they could get shoppers to do the improbable -- buy more fruits and vegetables. Recognizing that people tended to follow rules, they reasoned that a nudge in the right direction might do the trick. So they took a grocery cart and partitioned off a section with a sign labeled "Fruits and Vegetables." Seems they were right. People bought more fruits and vegetables. And the bigger the partition, the more they bought.
Creating visual nudges could be a significant ally in the quest to get people to think differently, primarily because we are a visual species. More than fifty percent of the brain's resources are devoted to visually processing information. And speed-wise, the eye-brain connection moves at ten million bits per second (or just as fast as your Ethernet connection). If the grocery cart study above is any indication, innovators can use visual tools to unlock internal dialogue around structure, operations, policies, strategies, and corporate identity.
One tool is readily available: perspective. Traditionally, perspective is meant to show three dimensions in a flat space. Perspective art has a remarkable history, in fact. But a second definition of perspective is more relevant to innovation in organizations: The capacity to view things in their true relations or relative importance. Its value in this context relies on the grocery cart rule above: if something of relative importance can be brought into the field of vision, it will be considered and managed appropriately.
The use of perspective as a tool to bring information of relative importance into the field of vision is fairly straightforward. Everyone (every leader, every organization) has a point of view, a way of looking at something that makes it hard to see another way. The great children's book The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster (1961), devotes almost every chapter to helping a character (Milo) change his point of view (he's bored). Here's a summary of one engagement:
Motoring along in the electric car, Milo, Tock and the Humbug take in the scenery and stop to enjoy a panoramic view. When Milo comments that the view is beautiful, a strange voice counters that "It's all in the way you look at things." Milo whirls around and sees a boy about his age floating several feet above the ground. "For instance," the floating boy continues, "If you happened to like deserts, you might not think this was beautiful at all." The boy is Alec, whose feet won't reach the ground until he's an adult. This is necessary to assure that Alec's point of view won't ever change. How hard it must be, Alec points out, for Milo to endure an ever changing point of view as he grows up.
Changing perspective is that simple: grow it. Show those protecting the most entrenched parts of the organization that what exists outside of their point of view (or frame of reference) is not simply a scaled up version of what they already see, but something substantially different and meaningful. A hierarchical organizational chart, for example, may fit how current executives see their retail business operating best. But expand the picture to show competitors in flat organizations acquiring market share faster, or reducing costs quicker, or retaining employees better, and suddenly an untouchable organizational element becomes ripe for innovation.
A superb example of how to grow perspective visually comes from the book Zoom, by Istvan Banyai (1998). See if you know what's outside the frame of reference.