Innovation And The Corporate Instinct That Kills It

“Everyone has a plan, until you get punched in the face.” – Mike Tyson Tyson

This quote was presented in a talk I heard from Dave Ulmer, who has a long career of creating and launching new businesses and products in corporations and start-ups.

His new book, “The Innovator’s Extinction” describes the tough challenges innovators face in the corporate world and why so many attempts at change fail.

He presented his talk at the weekly Saturday breakfast networking group I attend called METal International, hosted by Ken Rutkowski, also the host of Business Rockstars on KFWB in Los Angeles.

Early in his talk Ulmer asked for a show of hands from the audience as to who felt they were here to innovate, to be disruptive. After the show of hands he said, “You are all endangered species.”

It’s not because business owners are bad, “it’s just their nature,” he said.

Corporations are like a living organism, a human body, and as such they often seek out and destroy anything foreign, just like white blood cells do.

“White blood cells don’t kill the virus, they cut off its ability to live,” said Ulmer. In the same way, businesses don’t kill innovation directly, they starve it by freezing the budget, reducing headcount, delaying it with approval layers and more, killing it through “thousands of paper cuts.”

As Ulmer explained on his website, ChangeyourDNA, “I suppose the greatest lesson I’ve learned through the course of multiple instances of corporate resistance to change is that antibodies aren’t really out to get you; they’re simply trying to protect their host.”

It’s not personal. IInnovation is killed off because it is a foreign body, with different DNA and blood type than the existing company.

Ulmer explained of the time he worked at a large Korean electronics firm and tried to get them to consider development of smart TVs. But the corporate rules were so mangled that it was nearly impossible to present the concept to company insiders. There was another time, while Ulmer was working for a large U.S. maker of communication products, that he and his team had developed a music service platform, what he called an Internet radio system in the early days.

When the idea was presented to management, “the anti-bodies came out and it got killed.” The corporate executives said there was no value to it and all 200 people in his group were laid off.DNA

Later on Internet radio would emerge as a major consumer hit and the company – once a highly successful publicly traded firm – was acquired, its dominance now a thing of the past.

The result of all this is that, nine times out of ten, new innovative products and businesses come from outside a company, from new market entrants and not the market leaders, he said.

Blockbuster barely exists today due to an innovative startup called Netflix. BlackBerry, once the dominant player in the smartphone market, got crushed by the Apple iPhone. Many retailers today are withering under the success of Amazon.

“Big companies reward people when they take the easy path,” said Ulmer, and in so doing they are sowing the seeds of their ultimate demise. “They will die off because they can’t compete.”

Unless someone chooses to leave the company behind and focus on a new startup, there are some tricks you can apply to help innovation thrive inside the corporate world.

The solution, said Ulmer, is to overwhelm them, drug them, or hide from them.

“If you are scuba diving and confront a shark, you can’t beat it face to face. Just try to not look like a seal,” he said. “Avoid the bloodshed and run your innovation operations in stealth mode and just stay out of their way.”

As to drugging them, this can include making the right contacts inside the organization needed to build support for your plan. Seek out those who control the purse strings or approval processes, preferably at the mid-management level, and friend them. In one example Ulmer explained how he gave bonuses to sales people that persuaded them to step aside and let others take control, so that he could get his product into the market.

“The global sales team would not listen to us so I drugged them with bonuses,” he said.

Dave Ulmer

Dave Ulmer

Interestingly, Ulmer said whatever you do, do not use the word innovation, as it leaves the impression that everything else the company is doing is not innovative and may leave a foul taste.

He also said it helps to “cross pollinate,” bringing people from other parts of the company into your planning and, “Do not abdicate authority. Set up road blocks so you do not get attacked.”

Ulmer made clear that corporations will remain the same, killing off innovation, intentionally or not. You need to think in innovative ways as to how to make your project a success, before the white blood cells have a chance to kill.

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