The longer that I study innovation, the more I realize how hard it is to actually make it happen in a large company on a routine basis. Even companies that are renowned for their ability to do so, like 3M, struggle to get it right (check out this BusinessWeek article, which is one of the best articles I've ever read on innovation in any outlet). My main conclusion about innovation in large organizations at this point is that, although some practices and processes are more effective than others, the evidence about what actually works remains incredibly murky. As one wise consultant told me recently, if you are going to consult on this topic, and want to be honest about it, you need to be a lot more humble than, say, if you are consulting on process improvement. To me, this means that if someone tells you that they have the magic solution -- be it stage gates, six sigma, or design thinking -- to all your innovation problems, I would assume that that they are either bullshitting, or engaging in wishful thinking. The definition of Bullshit used by Harry Frankfurt fits perfectly here:
It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.
This brings me to the innovation process. A lot of companies try to use a stage gate system something like the one pictured below. I am sure it helps some companies and they can tell you success stories. But the process just never seems as clean and efficient as the picture -- even when good products and the like come out at the end, it usually feels like a disorganized mess. And putting testimonials aside, I still haven't found any systematic evidence that using a stage gate process actually helps --or hurts-- innovation.
In contrast, consider the picture that a Swedish consultant sent me today. Apparently, this is something he found on the wall at Volvo. His translation of the six stages of product development in the picture are:
3 Sober up
4 Hunting the guilty
5 Punishment of the innocent
6 Honours to those who didn't participate
Just as with stage gates, I can't find any solid evidence that confirms that this is second picture reflects how the process actually happens, but it strikes me as much more authentic than the first. Or perhaps the first picture is what managers hope will happen, and the second picture is what actually happens much of the time.
Finally, unlike my last post on graphology, I should emphasize that reading research on innovation does not provide a clear picture of what will work and will not. I often turn to singer Jimmy Buffet here; remember his line “Some things in life are a mystery to me, while other things are much too clear.” The innovation process in large organizations is one of those things that is still a mystery to me. There are some hints about what works and what does not, and when. But as that consultant commented to me, this is an area where considerable humbleness, and I would add, a sense of humor, is wise.
I also realize that -- despite my cynicism and complaints -- organizations still have to develop new ideas and implement them, and that if they don't try something, then nothing will ever happen. Academics like me may complain from the sidelines, but the messy business of getting things done goes on. And I suppose that flawed systems might be better than none at all.
But I also believe that less bullshit and more commitment to the hard facts would lead to better innovation processes in most organizations.