Innovation Isn’t a Department – It’s a Culture

I’ve been going through the Jocko Podcast archives over the past few months. While listening to Episode 47, one of the listener questions really got my attention. The listener asked Jocko if he did anything ritualistic to get himself mentally prepared before his Navy Seal operations. Pretty innocent question and one that I’d imagine many listeners have thought about.

Jocko’s answer was both powerful and counter-intuitive. I highly recommend listening to the full answer here. Here’s the most relevant section:

“I hate to spoil the romantic vision of the mindful warrior poet but that actually, that idea is just not what happens. Here’s the reality: first and foremost, when you’re in combat and preparing for an operation – you are freakin’ busy…there’s so much planning and preparation that needs to be done…you’re not just sitting around trying to figure out your mindset.

That being said, mindset IS a part of combat. So how did I get in the right mission mindset? Well the mindset is not achieved in the minutes or even hours before an operation, from chanting a mantra, or breathing, or meditation, or some song that will get you in touch with your warrior spirit. The mindset is achieved in the weeks, and the months, and the years BEFORE that specific operation commences.

We lived in the mindset and that mindset came from the training we went through, the repetition of the fundamental skill sets. The mindset comes from the discipline – waking up early, studying the tactics, understanding the enemy – from all those unmitigated daily disciplines”.

That is such a powerful answer, and one that any large company hoping to innovate should pay extra attention to. Before I dive into this further, a quick disclaimer: Yes, I fully understand that corporate innovation is orders of magnitude more trivial than war.

The Wrong Type of Innovation Culture

That being said (to borrow a classic Jocko phrase), there are SO many companies that think “innovation” can be learned in a single workshop or can be siloed into a department which will invigorate the rest of the company. You see this all over the place. Everyone seems to be looking for a shortcut and there’s no shortage of charlatans trying to sell it to them.

And when companies try to shortcut their way to innovation and fail, they wonder what went wrong. Let me say this unequivocally: things didn’t go wrong because you picked Outlook over Gmail, or because you chose to go to Tel Aviv for your innovation trip instead of San Francisco. It wasn’t because you picked the wrong innovation workshop vendor, or because you don’t have an open office plan.

Companies who try to make their innovation teams look like the cast of HBO’s ‘Silicon Valley’ are falling for the innovation myth equivalent of the “mindful warrior poet”

This focus on appearances and shortcuts is just another symptom of the “innovation theater” mindset. Innovation theater refers to companies (and people) who optimize for the appearance of being innovative instead of actually being innovative.

Without a doubt, innovation in large companies fails because of company culture. So what can leaders do to make their culture more innovative?

Incentives

Instead of trying to workshop innovation, companies need to build a questioning and experimentation mentality into their company culture. This starts with incentives – both positive and negative. Employees need to have some air cover from their superiors to question the status quo and try new things. In most organizations, a failed project can scar your career for life. This type of massive negative risk disincentive is a great way to ensure that employees never try new things. Getting rid of disincentives (or at least reducing the magnitude of the downside) is a good way for companies to get out of their own way.

But it can’t stop there. Employees also need some positive incentives for developing new businesses. Creating new things with proper incentives is hard enough – imagine having to do it in an environment where your best case scenario is earning a year-end plaque? Creating upside – both financial and prestige-based (early promotions, recognition, and more) – is crucial.

How Do You Spend Your Time?

Too often in large companies, employees spend the entire day running from meeting to meeting, with little time to breathe and collect their thoughts or do any “actual” work. This is no way to innovate. Creating new concepts, even non-disruptive ones, is grounded in thought and experimentation. Twenty person meetings typically have very little to do with it.

Google’s famous “20% Time” policy allows (or arguably, used to allow) employees to spend up to 20% of their time on side projects. This policy was responsible for the creation of Gmail, Adsense, and Google News, products which created or disrupted their categories. The biggest advantage to encouraging employees to start these side projects is that companies enjoy a risk-reward ratio that is massively in their favor. If a concept fails, barely any money or time was spent on it. If it succeeds, well, the results of Gmail speak for themselves. This is exactly that kind of low risk, high reward investment that professional investors hunt for all their lives.

While 20% time may or may not be directly applicable to your company’s situation, managers should be more comfortable giving employees leeway to experiment with new concepts. You never know what your company’s Gmail will be.

Added bonus: employees will feel more empowered and engaged, which usually leads to less turnover!

*****

There’s no workshop, partnership, or class that will magically turn a stale company into an agile machine. Creating an effective innovation culture requires months and years of foresight, proper incentives, and vigilance against the innovation theater mindset. And to paraphrase Jocko, an innovation culture is built through unmitigated daily disciplines, not shortcuts.

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