I just finished reading Bad Blood by John Carreyrou. It’s a fascinating account of the rise & fall of Theranos, the “innovative” blood testing company that mistook innovation for a public relations campaign.
Besides its psychotically-focused leaders and their enablers, what struck me most about the story is Theranos’ approach to innovation: the siloed, need-to-know-basis of information flow; the detrimental secretiveness that disempowered and terrified the workforce into silence; the persistent belief that innovation is only reserved for cult personalities with black turtleneck sweaters.
Theranos is an extreme example of siloed innovation. We can easily point to it and say, “That’s crazy-town. That’s not us.”
And yet, look around.
Siloed innovation is still the norm. Organizations have created innovation teams whose mission is to come up with something new, or at least find ways to improve the status quo. They are allocated fun “innovation lab” rooms with squishy balls and cushy chairs in fun colors because...how does one innovate without a slinky (??).
We love working with these teams. They’re full of the best people who do great things for the company. They explore. They succeed. They fail, and then try again.
The rest of the workforce - separated from these teams - looks at “those innovation” people as some creative, experimental task force working on inventing new things. Mostly, the rest of the workforce doesn’t know what these people do. Sometimes, as an afterthought, there’s minimal organized effort to share the innovation mindset with the rest company. That generates some excitement. And, then mostly everyone just goes back to work.
We are back to the need-to-know-basis (albeit less extreme) of Theranos.
From the business perspective, acknowledging the need to think different and providing a safe space to experiment is a great first step. It doesn’t, however, solve the siloed innovation problem because innovation in this case is still in the hands of the few, even though “cross-functional” teams are formed from time to time to “ideate.”
Even more than that, the idea of an “innovation team” implies that innovation is not a mindset everyone needs to practice, but more of a task for the select few with access to slinkys.
An accountant for example can join a “cross-functional” ideation workshop run by the innovation team. He arrives, contributes, and then goes back to his regular work. He is not guided to take the innovation mindset with him into accounting. His ideas contributed; his job here is done.
For a company to be “innovative,” innovation - this idea of connecting the dots in a way that produces new methods, ideas, products, services that resonate with your target audience - has to be systemic.
What does that mean?
There are many nuanced definitions of “systemic innovation.” In this context, we’ll define it as:
a non-siloed, iterative innovation process practiced by ALL people within the business organization.
This definition implies that to gain an “innovative edge,” the organization needs to ensure that innovation permeates company culture beyond a specific team or a black turtleneck sporting innovation evangelist. The organization’s policies and processes have to nurture an innovation mindset in all of its human capital.
By default, systemic innovation changes the company's DNA by cultivating a human-centered mindset as a way of life for all employees.
As designers we design things (products & services), but we also design organizations and cultures; the employee experience, as well as the customer experience. With strategy and management-led projects, we often wrestle with questions like: what would happen if the organizations employees were taught the innovation mindset as a way of life at work? How do we democratize innovation so that even the accountant feels inspired to solve problems for the business?
Figuring out a way to navigate that transformation is tricky, and I’ll explore that in future posts. Suffice to say, in practicing systemic innovation, the organization becomes one (albeit very large) innovation team.
No slinkys required.