The Top 5 Rookie Mistakes in Software – #2 Sustaining Innovation





Espionage and Sabotage

A toxic environment can kill innovation

Your innovators are your lifeline to success. Without a critical mass of imaginative people who are willing to take chances and throw their neck on the line for a fresh idea, you’ll be doomed to mediocrity. The unfortunate organizational culture that emerges in most corporations, however, is one that plays a harsh game of whack-a-mole with the few willing to stick their heads up to pursue new sustaining innovations. Why is this?

Here’s an interesting and hilarious Ted Talk video by Ken Robinson about killing creativity. Robinson does an excellent job of highlighting the backwards approach we have towards people for taking chances; for willing to be wrong. “If you’re not prepared to be wrong,” he says, “you’ll never come up with anything original.” But being wrong in the corporate environment – as it is in politics – exposes people in a negative light. It invites criticism and is met with disappointment. It’s remarkably easy to spin it as unsuccessful, you’ve failed.

In the world of software, having an edge in innovative products and innovative design is particularly important. The blinding speed that new technology hits the market puts heavy demands on differentiating yourself from the competition. Google, Apple and Research in Motion all know this (Here are the Top 50 most innovative companies according to Business Week). Check out this statement, which is part of Google’s employee agreement, “Thinking beyond the norm is expected, no matter what position you happen to hold…Innovation is our bloodline.” Even players like Google, however, will struggle with maintaining an innovative edge. It appears to be an unfortunate but consistent pattern as organizations become successful and continue to grow.  This pattern shows as an Innovation Curve where, during the new or start-up phase of a company (or departments within a company), there is a keen, passionate environment that allows and encourages innovation to thrive. As the company becomes successful, however, the innovation dies off; the innovators are pushed out and the organization becomes stale. According to a recent Research-Technology article on Sustaining Innovation, “As firms grow, they tend to exhibit common behaviors that prevent them from being adaptive to new environments, thereby limiting their ability to sustain their innovation drive”.

The innovation curve is a bit like this: innovation curve

Over time, rigid processes, resistance to change and complex power structures cause innovation to just drop off.

This curve is particularly noticeable when you work in the technology business – which is a domain that tends to attract innovative types. It’s a unique discipline where the scientist, inventor and artist – when all blended nicely into the same human package – can actually succeed in the corporate world. Success over the long term, however, means a tendency to regularly switch jobs as a result of this curve. They either get pushed out or slip away on account of boredom or frustration.  The long and short of it is: To drive out your best people, just let it get political.

Spot an Innovator

What do they look like? They’re often the ones who are quietly offering clever, game-changing solutions that come out of nowhere but blind you with simplicity and clarity. Not always the Howard Roark Geniusstereotype, of course, The Innovator can be bold and outspoken, and absolutely resolute in a vision.  They can be annoying and persistent and uncompromising and … shockingly unaware of the optics of a situation. Whatever the look they assume, one thing is certain: the innovator is a threat to The Ambitious and to The Contented.

Bluffing Your Way Into Management

The hierarchy of the typical corporation is a breeding ground for The Ambitious. The existence of an org-chart alone makes for a convenient physical reminder to many motivated individuals about goals. It is often the thing that drives them most. Having ambition, by the way, doesn’t necessarily make you one of The Ambitious, by my little definition. Those I’m calling The Ambitious are the ones who are born gifted with a political savvy about working the system. Rather than pursuing success through doing good work and bringing value, these are the calculated planners that pursue success through whatever means possible.

This includes the removal of barriers like innovative people. And the innovators are typically a very easy target because they’re so bluntly unaware of politics. Being keenly aware of the power of perception and making strategic alignments, a character assassination is a pretty routine task for The Ambitious. In the Sustaining Innovation article mentioned above, not much is made of this darker side of organizational culture – but the truth is, we all see it. It’s the active and transparent sabotage of individuals or teams to eliminate a threat.  Robert Sutton gets it. His blunt and charasmatic message bypasses all the niceties and tells it like it is. To learn more about Sutton’s offering, have a look at this rather good commentary on the civilized workplace and how not to be that guy. For an additional inspired read, check out Snakes In Suites by Babiak and Hare. 


Change Bad, Risk Bad

Process is an excellent strategy for removing innovators.  Lots of Process. As an organization experiences success The Contented will introduce greater Process and Meetings, and questions, and presentations to defend positions, and extensive documentation, and costShoot Foot justifications and detailed planning. Not to mention Committees and Steering Teams and Global Synergy Initiatives. This is all great stuff for driving the innovator absolutely nuts. A general resistance to change and risk, where everything is comfortable and familiar is also an ideal state to achieve where innovators will simply disappear. In other words, when the environment gets too bogged down with manoeverings, detractors and pointless meetings, the innovator will just get bored and leave. Of course, effective processes and process management are important, critical even; however they should match the environment and bring value.

Again, from Sustaining Innovation, “First, as firms mature they tend to become too comfortable doing what they normally do; this comfort leads to myopia and also discourages risk-taking outside their comfort zone. Second, core values and the structures in place become rigid over time, thereby encouraging only a narrow focus on operations and mission. This results in incremental innovations compatible with existing structures. Third, firms lose the drive that got them where they are; that is, they lose the creative energies, the openness to risk-taking and experiments that allowed them to carve a niche and disrupt the incumbents when they first entered the market.”

As Usual, It Comes Down to Leadership

When the Big Three auto CEOs flew private jets to ask for taxpayer money, in November, 2008; I remember thinking to myself, These guys are really out of touch. As shocking as it was, it’s representative of how common it is for leaders in established organizations to get thoroughly disconnected from what’s going on down on Earth.  Strong and engaged leadership and leadership strategies are critical to enable a competitive level of innovation. Deliberate actions and reinforced values have to exist to eliminate the exploits of The Ambitious and the conflicts waged by The Contented.

Leaders and managers at all levels of an organization must be tought to underline the importance of remaining an innovator.  Innovate or Die. Isn’t that the expression? Management is the most succeptable to becoming lazy and Contented and guilty of no strategies around sustaining their innovation edge. The stagnation of innovation is a symptom that has roots at all levels, especially right at the top.


Chris Ronak


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