October 26, 2011
I created this cartoon almost 10 years ago. Back then, companies were feeling their way around innovation, but still rather two-faced about their commitment to the discipline. Management would openly acknowledge that innovation programs could fail without repercussion for the team and its members. Publicly, leadership would pronounce that managing a portfolio of innovation programs might yield one or two winners, and the failures were of value for the learning acquired. No harm done, no careers lost.
But they didn’t behave that way. Years ago, product innovation groups played host to individuals who often didn’t “fit” in the mainstream, more respected product management career path. The strongest managers steered clear of innovation work, thinking of it as an academic exercise focused on phase gates and forwarding innovation “science”. As well, they feared being marginalized or out of the action in visibility and business impact. Innovation teams toiled in anonymity, infrequently sharing progress, less frequently touting good news and happy to stay below the corporate radar. Or at best, they would fight to be heard at every staff and budget meeting. No one knew what was going on down there in the skunk works. And worse, few cared.
So management continued to outwardly profess that failure was welcome as a learning experience, and the organization was slowly improving the odds of success. But the culture of selecting talent and limiting awareness made for a political climate that continued to disproportionately reward core business managers who are generating revenue today at the expense of those who were, in all actuality, trusted with the future. Unexpectedly, those who chose a job in innovation often found themselves with plenty of psychic rewards, and more comfortable in a work environment where the creative, strategic and intellectual aspects of strategy, research, design and testing suited them better than the high-visibility, daily trial-by-fire of product management.
This era is finally over–I think. And this cartoon is thankfully obsolete–perhaps. So much has changed, though slowly. A degree of innovation process discipline generated a body of learning over time that began to bear fruit with more frequent success. Academic irrelevance gave way to practical and proven tools. These successes and the visibility they generated began to draw interest from those who wouldn’t consider the innovation path before. Management realized that squeezing blood from the monolithic brand stone was becoming more expensive and less impactful. Brand management and innovation got to know one another. And innovation was redefined from swinging for the fences every time to looking for singles and doubles that didn’t disenfranchise consumers and customers, and reduced execution risk for the organization.
It all added up to newfound success in the marketplace. Good people are now rewarded for taking a previously “risky” career path, and have realized that the skills collected are worth at least as much in the job marketplace as those acquired by sticking to brand management. Knowing how to deal with uncertainty, solve problems and drive growth have become desirable attributes, and dare I say—cool. And as companies began to show less loyalty to their people overall, these skill- and character-building jobs have become sought after in a world where the best employees look to take back control of their careers.
So what might this cartoon look like today? Maybe there’s no longer a need to make a statement about the culture surrounding innovation at all. But I doubt that’s yet the case. I have a few ideas, but how about you tell me. And, if you think this cartoon still speaks the truth, I’d sure like to hear about that, too.