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Can You Do It Again? One Successful Innovation Project Is Not Enough To Change Your Company’s Culture

When it comes to innovation success, I find it difficult to stop for a moment and smell the roses. When I meet corporate innovation teams that have succeeded in launching one or two products in the market, I become fearful that they are about to get distracted by their success. The question that is constantly spinning in my head is whether they could repeat that success within the same organization on a new project.  

Corporate innovation is hard to do. Success often comes through navigating political landmines and corporate bureaucracy. So when teams finally succeed, they deserve to be congratulated and celebrated. But in that success lies a trap and some often ignored questions. Are the one-off successes that these innovation teams are having making a contribution to changing their company culture? Is innovation now happening as a repeatable process? If we celebrate their success right now, are we declaring victory too soon?  

Getting Early Win

I am a strong advocate of intrapreneurs building their credibility within an organization, before they attempt to transform the rest of the company’s culture. The best way to gain credibility is for innovators to work with early adopter leaders and businesses within the company. Your goal is to help these leaders succeed with their innovation projects and also show your company the value that can be created by lean innovation methods.  

For this to succeed, your work with early adopters need to produce some successes. With these  early wins, you then have the credibility to influence leaders and change how they manage innovation. So after getting an early win, you have to celebrate like crazy and tell your success stories to anyone in the company who will listen. 

The challenge is to not get distracted by this early success. You may now be a local hero inside your company. You will now be getting asked to give presentations to leaders about your success and the lessons you learned. You will be invited to lunch meetings, to be a judge at hackathons and write articles on the company blog. Depending on the magnitude of your success, you may even be getting press and media attention. 

In the glow of adulation from your new found fans, it can be easy for you to think that you have made it. Before this moment, you were an innovation pariah – nobody wanted to be associated with you. Now everybody knows your name! This is the moment I step in with a huge wet blanket. It’s a tough conversation, but I often have to remind teams that they haven’t really succeeded yet. You have had some limited wins but there is still a long way to go.  

Declaring Victory Too Soon

Don’t forget who you are within the organization. If you need reminding, here is a thought experiment you can run. Think about your innovation team. If they wanted to, how difficult would it be for leaders to disband that team? Would it be as difficult as getting rid of a key function such as finance? Or would it be as easy as getting rid of a team of external consultants? 

These are questions I have raised several times in my workshops and I get the same results. Over 60% of innovation teams are as easy to disband as external consultants. This is why an early win is not a victory. You have won a single project battle, but the cultural war is not yet won. In fact, your early win can be rightly viewed as another innovation in a series of one-off projects. This is not very different to what was happening in your company before you started.  

In fact, all the adulation you are currently getting has just put bigger bullseye on your back from your detractors. If you think your work on innovation was viewed as an annoyance before, now that you are succeeding you are viewed as a genuine threat. So humility and focus are now needed more than ever. You may have won over a few more people to your cause, but there is still a lot to do. 

Lasting Change

The reason we encourage you to tell the story of your early wins is so that you gain credibility within your company. But you are not doing it to become famous. You are doing it so that you can influence leaders to drive a bigger cultural change. Your goal is to make innovation a repeatable process within the company; and to make entrepreneurship a legitimate part of your company’s structures and processes.  

You are going to use your early success to make it easier for other people to innovate in the future. So don’t get caught up in the early win and focus on making a lasting change. Use your newly found credibility to get leadership support, improve your company’s organizational design and implement world class innovation practices.

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