Corporate innovation: A meme worth saving?

Article Highlights

  • It’s difficult to conceive of anything less innovative than fixing on a specific idea of what innovation looks like.

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  • The question today is whether the innovation meme will soon require the “gBuzz bingo” card sort of treatment.

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  • We should spend a bit more time thinking about how unbelievably difficult it is to innovate within large corporations.

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At Genentech, in the old days (or so it is written), corporate buzzwords were strictly outlawed; if anyone started to drop some lingo and veer into doublespeak, employees were encouraged to fill out a “gBuzz bingo” card (downloadable from the company’s intranet) to record the transgressions; complete a line, and you were obliged to shout “gBuzz!”

The question today is whether the innovation meme will soon require this sort of treatment – see this recent WSJ article, and this piece I wrote about the Successorization of Steve Jobs

I was thinking about this recently, as I listened to a talk from the Stanford Entrepreneurial Thought Leader Seminar Series delivered by a banking finance executive-turned-chief-innovation officer, who had recently set up a corporate VC in Silicon Valley. 

As I listened to the words – passion, revolution, platform, consummerization, delightful, customer experience, disruptive, dragon’s den, stoked, openness, curiosity, innovation, design, D-school, prototyping, iterative process, big data, fearless, inspiring, messy, willing to fail – I could almost see the buzzword bingo card filling itself out. 

The slick corporate video accompanying the talk was also striking (see here, starting at about 27:08), on the one hand saying just the right things about openness, collaboration, learning from others, but on the other, coming across exactly like, well, a slick corporate video, precisely the sort of thing you’d expect from a large organization touting its commitment to innovation.

It also reminded me of an innovation project I contributed to years ago as a consultant; while the goal was to help the large corporate client become more innovative, a key deliverable turned out to be a ten page document the client could share with the investment community extolling its revitalized commitment to innovation.  The most specific (and as I recall, only) expectation for this white paper: it had to use the word “innovate” or “innovation” at least twice per page, on every page of the document (no kidding).

Perhaps not surprisingly, when a version of the document was eventually released, the analyst community loved it – the client, their reports said, had learned from its mistakes and was now enthusiastically embracing innovation.

Of course, as even the Stanford seminar speaker pointed out, corporate VCs are perhaps especially suspect – these strange hybrids seem to reflect a deadly mix of corporate design and innovation lingo; often, they were (and are) viewed as vanity projects, a chance for corporate executives to take off their ties, rent an office, and pretend they are the next Bryer, Doerr, Andreessen, or Feld.  (Of note, Brad Feld’s Stanford talk about innovation is definitely worth a listen; the contrast between a “grass roots” VC and a corporate VC seems vividly apparent.) 

To  be sure, the role of corporate VCs has never been especially clear, and the value they bring to the company (usually viewed as vaguely “strategic” since the returns aren’t likely to move the bottom line) is quite suspect – and certainly should be.  On the other hand, at least in healthcare, corporate VCs are playing an increasingly vital role in keeping the innovation biopharma ecosystem at least on life support, as evident in this post from Bruce Booth.

As for the corporate embrace of innovation: before we give in to temptation, and dismiss these efforts as cynical platitudes, consider the following: what if a senior leader within a large company decided she genuinely wanted to innovate, to try to get a traditional corporation to think differently, to share ideas better, to express passion and enthusiasm, and to leverage scale to maximize the impact of such innovative thinking.  What would it look like?  Do you think it would appear all that different than what we’re seeing from the chief innovation officer at the bank?

Yes, the effort of a large New York bank to land in Silicon Valley in order to absorb, then transmit internally, the innovation ethos seems more than a little forced and contrived; maybe in the end, it really is just a vanity exercise. 

But before we smugly dismiss it, and other efforts like it, perhaps we should spend just a bit more time thinking about how unbelievably difficult it is to innovate within large corporations.  If someone within one of these companies has decided she wants to fight the odds and the nay-sayers, and if she appears to be making an intensive, dedicated effort – perhaps she merits the benefit of the doubt, and maybe even a second look.

When you think about it, it’s difficult to conceive of anything manifestly less innovative than getting fixed on a specific idea of exactly what innovation looks like — and exactly who is qualified to deliver it.

(Readers might also enjoy this piece, contrasting incremental vs disruptive progress; this piece, looking at idea of entrepreneurs as authors of their own lives, analogous to Ira Glass and Woody Allen; and this piece, breaking the news to graduates that most of business isn’t about self-exploration, alas, but rather getting the work done.)

David Shaywitz is an Adjunct Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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