5. Give them a box. Stanford Graduate School of Business professor Robert Burgelman has written that “successful firms are characterized by maintaining bottom-up-driven internal experimentation and selection processes while simultaneously maintaining top-driven strategic intent.” In other words, the variation/selection process works only if it takes place within the boundaries of a clear and explicit strategic direction for the company—as established by top management.
Innovation experts often proclaim that people need to “think outside the box” and “get out of their comfort zone.” However, what Burgelman observed in academic studies undertaken to examine the innovation processes of high-tech companies is that people actually need a box to channel their creativ-ity. This description of a company’s general strategic direction cannot be too narrow or it will inhibit new ideas, but a general direction is needed to provide boundaries within which people can innovate. For example, at FremantleMedia, the stated mission is to produce television programs that are replicable in other countries. Employees know that country-specific pitches will be immediately selected out.
Letting a thousand flowers bloom will give your company the appearance of being innovative. But investing in variation alone is not enough. You must have a deliberate system of selection to ensure that the right ideas—those that are truly best for your company’s strategic direction and not those determined by personal preference and emotion—get the funding they need. It’s the 999 flowers you let die that enable true innovation to flourish.
Reprint No. 00203
- Freek Vermeulen is an associate professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at London Business School.