There is this perception that big companies are nincompoops who can never get out of their own way and get innovation to the market. But if you think about the starting point of a large company, they are the ones with the advantage: they have all the customer and all the money. If you can’t use that advantage and leverage both to start your innovation, you are definitely doing something wrong.
Craig is the founder of intrapreneurship@IBM, which is intended to foster corporate entrepreneurship from everybody who works at IBM, not just the people who work in research and development or not just the people with the word ‘innovation’ in their title.
At IBM innovation is continual and already part of the culture. You can see that from their “near-death” experience in the 1990s, when the company lost its way to politics and some bad decisions.
One of the major transformations that IBM had to make in the 1950s was changing from a tabulating company to a true computing company. Before computers had memory and could be programmed to do certain things, punch cards were used to contain digital information. At that time, most of IBM’s sales came from punch cards. So while everyone was excited about a new kind of technology, from a business perspective the transformation was very scary. No one from the sales team wanted to make the switch. It was the CEO at the time, Thomas Watson Jr. who ultimately made the bet.
But not all good opportunities are taken up, and part of smart innovation is knowing when and when not to sit on your technology. Steve Sasson invented the first digital camera in 1975, while being an engineer in Kodak. But Kodad was in the film business and was afraid that the camera would cannibalize their film business.
Another transformation that should have happen but didn’t was the invention of the telephone by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876. At the time, the dominant player in what we would consider telecommunications today was Western Union. Western Union owned all the wires, all the telegraph stations, and employed all the telegraph operators who’d send Morse codes and messages for a fee, and didn’t see any value in this thing called the telephone.
Recognizing these opportunities when they came up is so important. Everyone agrees that innovation is important to growth, but 72 percent don’t have confidence in their own organization’s ability to commercialize innovation. If innovation is so important, why are we so bad at it?
The thing is that technology is adopted by a set of behaviors or principles because it’s adopted by people, not by a process or system. Everett Rogers first codified this in Diffusion of Innovations in 1962 and then Geoffrey Moore later took this idea to the next level with Crossing the Chasm in the early 1990s.
Building on these two authors’ ideas and his own research inside IBM, Craig has his own view, and he called it the snail model or the tortoise model. It’s an extension of Moore’s diagram to the left where a lot happens before you can get early adaptors to use your innovation (see slide 20). The larger you are as a company the more you have that problem, especially if you are a publicly traded company, because the people who come up with ideas are usually not the people who commercialize them and who are not responsibly to see to their success.
There are at least three different phases in the diagram: ideation, commercialization, and adaptation. Everything from politics to misalignment of incentives can shut down great innovation. Navigation from the phases are critical for success and the best way to do it depends on the organizational dynamics of the company.
A year and a half ago Craig saw an opportunity; he felt that a large percentage of employees were not being served help for their ideas. If you are in research and development you get lots of support and funding opportunities, but for those who are in other fields there was no real support.
Craig started the intrapreneurship program which is made-up of a community of like-minded people, and the goal is to help IBMers who have an idea and who may not have access to funding or resources to get that idea from point A to point B. They provide coaching and mentoring, and it’s primarily based on a volunteer model where IBMers are helping IBMers based on their experience.
Volunteer models are great for employee engagement but they are not bulletproof. There are people with good intentions who want to help and sometimes it just doesn’t happen. Yet Craig believes that the volunteer model far outweighs any shortcomings associated with it.
IBMers with ideas can bring them forward to get help through what they call the 8-Minute Pitch. Help may be in the form of funding, subject matter expertise, resources, and so on. The pitches take place in front of senior managers who are looking for the next big ideas. Anything can happen then, they even had ideas funded on the spot.