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Thursday, July 3, 2014

Innovating in Big Shops: The Puppy Parable

Innovation gets tons of press and blog real estate these days, much of it associated with internet startups. I have more experience innovating (or at least trying to) at some of the true behemoths of the software industry, which I assume provide a much different experience than what I imagine happening in the fabled garages in the Valley. The idea that “big shops” have trouble innovating is fairly well established although probably a bit overstated. The story arc of innovations at these companies is probably less well known. After what is likely too many years on these big ships, I’ve noticed a fairly consistent pattern of behavior when it comes to innovation (or even just new thinking). Please allow me to present a little parable describing the typical “Stages of Innovation” at a mega-corporation.

Stage 1: Your puppy is soooo cute!

In this stage, folks in management and those working on more established products hear about the idea you’re incubating and, if it’s compelling, treat it like a precious puppy you just brought home from the pound. Their enthusiasm for your cute little bundle of slobbering joy is mostly genuine. They are happy to see the organization thinking out of the box and will likely pet your puppy enthusiastically, especially if they see folks in upper management rubbing its belly and cooing with delight.

Stage 2: That puppy is starting to annoy me!
In this next phase, your puppy is becoming more and more energetic and has begun yelping at inopportune times, drawing attention away from the other dogs in the kennel, i.e., other products in the portfolio or ideas in the pipeline. In its youthful exuberance, your puppy may have even left a couple of unexpected “surprises” here and there, disrupting a kennel that had been relatively orderly and predictable.

Some folks will now start distancing themselves from your puppy, becoming irritated by its unbridled energy and sporadic clumsiness. Their diminished affection is symptomatic of an increasing sense of angst: Your puppy is growing up and may become a threat to the other dogs in the kennel. In an ironic twist, the owners of these other dogs often begin frantically relieving themselves on almost anything in the vicinity (like development budget), marking their territory and relieving their mounting stress.

You will begin to sense other’s unease but will write it off as someone’s having a bad day or at worst mild case of envy. After all, who could possibly resist the cutest little puppy anyone’s ever seen (in your eyes, anyway).

Stage 3: That puppy MUST DIE!

In this stage, no one remembers their initial fondness for your puppy. It’s getting surprisingly strong now and its sharp little teeth are causing unbearable pain to the tender fingers and toes of the other dog owners. In the blink of an eye, the gloves come off and people start casting aspersions at your little puppy, sometimes to your face but more often behind closed doors. They say it’s out of control. They say people on the outside will never like this vicious little ankle biter. In extreme cases, they’ll claim he’s rabid. The more diplomatic among the dog owners, paragons of consideration that they are, will start suggesting humane ways to quickly euthanize your puppy. Others will show up on management’s door step with a burlap sack and a pile of rocks.

As the puppy’s devoted owner, you will be perplexed at these developments, astonished that there are people who don’t LOVE your puppy as much as you do. Your parental instincts will kick in and, if you’re not careful, you will do irrational things that will put your puppy in further peril. Keeping your wits about you and not letting the bullies see you sweat are highly advisable at this stage.

In the next stage, we assume your puppy has survived the onslaught of slander, collusion and outright aggression that threatened it, developing into a healthy little scamp that is loved by all. Unfortunately, this is by no means the most common outcome but, let’s face it: No one likes to read (or write) about dead puppies.

Stage 4: Look at my dog!
In this stage, typically once you've shipped, you play the part of the proud owner/parent, basking in glory of the highest praise that can be bestowed up you and your little pet: People now claim him (or her) as theirs. Those who once harbored fantasies of running him over multiple times will now regale you and anyone else within earshot with tales of how they were the ones who had the idea that the kennel needed a new puppy in the first place. They’ll brag about how they helped pick it out from the litter and might even grow nostalgic remembering about all the nights they stayed awake helping you nurse it through its difficult early months. After all, what are friends for? Your new bestest buddies, self anointed aunts and uncles, will begin looking for conspicuous opportunities to laud your puppy in front of execs, demonstrating what selfless team players and understated visionaries they really are.

You will feel an overwhelming urge to give these proud new “owners” atomic wedgies. Being the professional you are, you will keep your composure, knowing you are a member of an elite club of people who managed to move the excitement needle on the dash of a mighty oil tanker that rarely sees any change in course or speed.

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