Making Innovation Unsexy

(This post was originally posted on the Neo blog)

“None of my inventions came by accident. I see a worthwhile need to be met and I make trial after trial until it comes. What it boils down to is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration.” – Thomas Edison, 1929

Many years ago, in between startups, a friend pulled me into a consulting gig for a large Japanese conglomerate here in the USA. They wanted to flip their IT department from a cost center into a profit center by turning it into an IT consulting company.

The idea wasn’t bad. Jeff Bezos famously did this with Amazon’s cloud services. The problem usually comes in the form of execution.

What people too often hate to admit, is that innovation is a game of execution, not just inspiration.

The IT department within this Japanese corporation was talented enough from a technical perspective. That was not their challenge.

What were some of their risks?

– they did not have an entrepreneurial leader in charge of the business unit
– they had optimized processes for serving themselves, not many external clients
– they had not tested what it would be like when they were no longer the sole, and thus centrally important, “customer” of this IT group
– they did not have an effective customer acquisition strategy other than thinking that other Japanese operations in the US would prefer to buy from them rather than American companies
– they had not done a realistic financial analysis of the addressable market, cost to sell and deliver business, and the additional costs that would ensue by turning it into a stand-alone business
– they did not have enough English speakers within the staff or leadership team
– they had not re-thought all the pieces from culture through compensation through hiring that would need to change

Of course, by not running hard experiments, testing the model, and looking hard at themselves, they got to be a smash success in their minds, right up until launch. No new ventures begins with a perfect plan — they all have to iterate — but when the foundation is so weak, iteration is even harder.

Experienced entrepreneurs learn the hard way that the fantasy isn’t worth the pain that comes after. The only thing that matters is a win, and that means that the only thing that matters is right answers, not ego and certainly not fantasy.

Dabbling in intrapreneurship is the same as admitting defeat before you start. Innovation is messy. It takes hard work, time, endless iteration, and hard-core execution.

It’s easy to buy ideas and prototypes. It’s certainly fun being creative and clever. But creatives smarts is table stakes. That’s just 1% — an important 1%, but just 1%.

If you are serious about innovation, you need a structure, a team, an environment, a budget and a time frame that is serious about innovation.

99% perspiration isn’t sexy, but it’s the hard truth.