Dances with Wolves is a 1990 Western film starring, directed, and produced by Kevin Costner in his feature directorial debut. It tells the story of Lt. John Dunbar, a civil war hero who request an outpost on the Western frontier. On arrival at his outpost, Dunbar finds the post deserted. Dunbar soon realises his new station is positioned near a tribe of Lakota Sioux. He soon earns the respect of the tribs and adopts their culture as his own.
I was reminded of this epic movie recently during a conversation with Ismail Amla. As we explored his book “From Incremental to Exponential”, we discussed Innovation Hubs or Innovation Outposts.
This Thursday Thought explores some thoughts on “Innovation Outposts”, what works, why it works and of course what doesn’t work.
Humanics Not (Just) Mechanics
There are nearly a thousand corporate innovation outposts in Silicon Valley, but very few of them are successful. According to one study by Capgemini and Altimeter Group, more than 90% of corporate innovation efforts fail.
As many of those people who work there know, failure is not due to a lack of investment. Financial investment is the easy part, many corporate leaders throw money at the challenge and hope that will keep the board, the investors, that pesky shareholder who keeps saying we should innovate more – happy. Failure happens for a number of reasons, one of which I wanted to highlight in the context of Dances with Wolves.
I once worked in digital transformation for a number of years. As many people who have worked in such roles know, you get thrown all kinds of projects under the umbrella of digital. One of the poison chalices passed my way was to improve cross-group collaboration. The CEO had decided the way forward was to implement a mechanical fix with the company-wide introduction of Yammer (Microsoft’s corporate social networking service). Of course, the problem was never which mechanical tool to use, the problem lay with culture, a humanic fix. People saw no reason to collaborate, no reward, no recognition, but rather “just another thing group wants us to do.” In addition, there was a lack of trust across the organisation and people were rewarded more to compete with each other rather than to support each other. Operation cross-group collaboration failed miserably.
Implementing a mechanic fix is always easier, quicker, but weaker than getting to the root of the humanic cause.
In the same vein, many organisations believe investing in a corporate outpost will “fix” innovation, but just like my Yammer challenge, the solution lies in humanics and not just mechanics.
Humanics – Right People, Right Mindset
In Dances with Wolves, John Dunbar is accepted by the Lakota Sioux because he embraces their culture. He does not try to impose his culture on the tribe. He attempts to speak in their language and ensures that he speaks to be understood, not to display dominance.
In a similar way, many corporate outposts fail because they are staffed with the wrong people. Corporate outposts are often helmed by executives or promising young employees from the corporate mothership who struggle to embrace the culture of the Valley. In some cases, when an employee lands in the outpost on secondment, they treat the valley experience as a holiday or worse as a punishment. If an outpost is assembled thoughtlessly, bringing in whoever might be available at the time regardless of their skillset or personality type, it will almost certainly fail. The right mindset for an innovation outpost is essential, its members should be somewhat outside of the norm and as a result, often the company does not know how to manage such people, who are often considered eccentric, troublesome, less enfants terribles!
While mothership leaders are willing to commit financial resources, they are often reluctant to commit time. Innovation is rarely considered an activity essential to an organization’s core mission and many leaders risk more than they gain from engaging in innovation. As a result, it can face commitment barriers, and all too often gets cut when its need is not or no longer apparent. This can lead senior managers to treat the corporate outposts as “dumping grounds” for marginal employees, or those whom they are not sure what to do with.
Imagine the conversation between CEO with section leader and HR in attendance:
Section leader: “We have this employee, she has done quite well, she lacks the leadership qualities required to move up to the next level. We have invested in her, but really don’t know what to do with her. She has done profile tests, we assigned a leadership coach, but it just isn’t working.”
CEO: (thinking to herself, hmm, I need someone from corporate to oversee Innovation in the Valley, then smiling to HR lead) “I have a solution. What about…..”
Accountability in Innovation
There is a lack of accountability when it comes to most innovation work. (If this interests you check out the episode of The Innovation Show with Dan Toma and Ester Emmely Gons). People who work in Innovation are rarely held to a specific goal, and even when they are, accountability tends to be fluid. This is a major problem for them and for innovation outposts. It reduces them to a nice-to-have role with little real output. It also lets the CEO or leadership team off the hook. I find the most frequent reaction to transformational leadership is not smiles and high fives, but a moment of harsh realisation that for a company to survive in an age of disruption, we must embrace true innovation. Transformational innovation means mass change and that is extremely time-consuming and a monstrous undertaking. Delivering innovation keynotes as I do to middle management is always met with enjoyment. Why? Well, I hope it is because I do a good job, but I know also it is because those who enjoy the talks or workshops do not have any accountability, there is no follow-up, there are no tough decisions to make.
In Dances with Wolves, John Dunbar adopts the ways of the natives. He even finds love in the tribe. Here is a harsh reality when it comes to innovation outposts. Realising that their outpost is a “non-core asset”, subject to cuts whenever the mothership experiences deterioration in its balance sheet or merely a change in leadership, many outposters end up leaving the organisation and go native in the valley. Often the best outpost employees get headhunted away by smart startups or by legacy technology players who recognize their value well before their mothership ever understands their value. In many cases, the mothership is often happy to lose another outposter off their books, never seeing them as valuable in the first place. It is only when they experience market turbulence, business model disruption or a global pandemic that they realise what they have lost.
Almost always, the best outposters leave frustrated. They set up on their own, gaining funding for the idea they wanted to pursue in the mothership. They become consultants trying to help people in similar roles or they jump from mothership to mothership hoping that they find one that is ready to commit on a humanic and mechanic level.
Thanks for Reading – If you work in an outpost please share your thoughts
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