The House of Cards Reality for Innovation Projects

Jun 22, 2014 | Ideas for Organisation, Ideas for Strategy, PurposeCORE

Tweet Line: A pragmatic and realistic approach in building a coalition is necessary for innovation to work.

These days, innovation is made to sound so exciting and easy. There are so many experts peddling buzzwords like design thinking, disruption, all sugar-coated in simplistic tones and in some shade of blue. But I often wonder if any of these great minds, professors, thinkers have ever been involved in the actual implementation of a project. It is one thing to string successful cases to claim breakthroughs and another to go through the heart-breaking process of trying to make it work.

Yes you heard it, innovation can a heart-breaking process and I dare say, a traumatic experience for the uninitiated. We often say in our firm that once you start on an innovation project, remain detached and be prepared to let it go or even to let it die.

The truth is, too many good innovation projects die. And often, they die not because of the lack of merit or purpose but due to the ugly side of ambition, money and timing.

If you think that just because you have a great idea, a coalition will naturally gather around you, then you are dead wrong. Once you start the ball rolling, you have got to keep your eyes on it because you are not in control of the end game.

Like the riveting TV drama, House of Cards; be careful of what you might trigger through an innovation initiative. Because if you are not prepared for the fight, then get ready to be trashed. But if you are smart and you don’t let those early failures get to you, then you will soon learn the rules of your house and win. Every organisation has its own rules, learn them, build coalitions and learn how to bid at the right time. Master these and you will shape the future of your organisation through innovation. From our decade of work, here are 5 realities that you will have to deal with to make innovation work.

1) Identify the Different Seats of Power

Most organisational charts will not tell you the different seats of power but it is your job to find out. Before proposing any project, make an effort to attend board meetings or anything that can get you close to understanding how the decisions are made around here. Find out whose vote or nod of approval matters. Talk to the secretaries, the tea ladies, find out the relationships within the power structures. Then quietly pitch your idea to the ones in power or those who have his/her ear. Get feedback before you pitch any innovation project.

We made a similar mistake once. We were serving a large national entity and we did not know that their values-advisory board had veto power on matters of business. So we spent the whole time putting the transformation project together, making sure that we have got all the strategic bases and rationale covered. But when it was up for approval, and just because we failed to consider the opinion of this board, our project was put on hold for a year. It was an unfortunate delay and we paid a heavy price for it.

2) Offer Key Parties, a Piece of Your Cake

You may think that your project is the saviour for the company but in truth, no one cares about what they don’t know. In any case, you have to seriously consider who might be concerned about your project. Will your immediate boss be threatened by your move, should some engineers down the line be concerned about your fancy project? If you are serious about winning, then you have to learn how to build coalitions. The significant party in your organisation must be given a preview and a stake in this exercise.

One of our first project was with a major food and beverage company. They had a line of very traditional-looking cakes which no longer appealed to the younger demographics that we were going after. So we set out with gusto to develop a line of exciting cake designs which will help to transform the image of the brand. The management team readily agreed as they all felt that it was the right thing to do.

When it was time to introduce the new designs to the bakers, we were confident that they would appreciate the simplicity of the new approach. But after they streamed in and had a look, there was dead silence. The management said that they were probably too shocked to respond but then we heard nothing for a while. Turns out that someone had spread word that this would be a major change and that their work hours would be affected. So the bakers weren’t concerned about the designs but about their work flows. Needless to say, the project never took off. The company is still stuck with those traditional designs and continue to lose market share till today.

3) Beware of the Nuclear Option: Money

If your project has already been given the go ahead and is in progress, don’t be too cocky that it is now on safe ground. Because there are still many ways to kill it even after if it has been launched. We have seen many project managers who are so passionate about the outcomes that they fail to defend themselves against the nuclear option, money. Of course everyone knows it is going to be hard to measure something that is not out in the market yet. But you need to be ready to build your case in terms of the returns with other directors; consider different scenarios; devise ways to justify the scale of the project. And you have to quickly park this project under the budget of a powerful patron. If it is out there alone for too long, it can be nucleared.

We were working with a public agency on a new platform that will transform the way companies access consultants. It was extremely creative and the project lead was a brilliant person with the passion to match. But this activity greatly unsettled the superior who was not clearly not equipped to understand what is going on. Eventually the project did get launched but since it unsettled the superior, its future was doomed to a certain extent. As the project was Herculean by design, it was easy to gut it on the basis of costs even though it showed a lot of promise. And eventually they did.

4) Lose Something to Win Eventually

Sometimes to test the water, put out a smaller project just to see the reaction of the different players. Take the opportunity to see the positions and postures that people adopt. Usually for those who are not opposing on the basis of merit, their positions are quite predictable. When people claim that it is too risky, it is code for: it is not worth it. Or if people say that it is too expensive then it is code for: I don’t see how I can benefit from it. So by taking note of the different positions, you can recalibrate your state of influence with each one and plan your next move.

We started a small strategic review with a company which was experiencing great changes in the industry. The study was an eye-opener as we could see the positions of the different partners and it was obvious that some were on a different tangent. We presented a major overhaul on the direction of the whole company but only the CEO who brought us in understood. I felt the resolve of the CEO so we decided to do another smaller project in the limited role of marketing. Throughout the small exercise, we could further understand the motivation of each partner and what was at stake for them. Eventually after one year, we were more prepared with our angle and they adopted the more radical transformation. It changed the destiny of the company and they adopted most of our recommendations. This company has since gone on to win several business accolades.

5) Don’t Say Innovation to Get Innovation Done

Innovation, change, transformation, these are words that generally scare people. Many staff are already stressed with their existing obligations so anything more is always a stretch. This is why I always tell the team to remember the words of Chinese leader, Mr Deng Xiao Ping: ” It doesn’t matter whether a cat is white or black, as long as it catches mice.” Over the years, we have done so many projects under titles that do not scream innovation such as branding, sales enhancement or community engagement. We adopted familiar titles so as to assure the people involved that we are working on things that they are familiar with. This paves the way for eventual success.

We were invited to work on a branding project by a senior partner of a leading engineering firm. But our first meeting with his other partner did not go very well as he thought that rebranding might be a distraction. But after a while he understood the value of our work since we went deep into organisational development and transformation. He saw the opportunity to use it to change the mindsets and processes of the organisation. Through the exercise, we managed to help him to clarify his business and product portfolio, redesign organisational structures for growth. Now the company is on the path towards being a listed entity.

Image is for illustration purpose only. There is no relationship between the show and the author. Source of picture: Netflix, Text: Author’s