Corporate innovation struggles, and not from a lack of ideas or capital. More often, the constraints are time and attention.
In the world of corporate innovation, most people say that they have “no budget” – the constrained resource is money. Over time I learned there are three critical resources that are always constrained – money, yes, but also time and attention. There have always been plenty of ideas, tons of innovation that people wanted to make happen. Just not enough time, money, or attention to get it all done.
As I look at the arc of my career, I think about all those lists, of ideas and projects to be launched, the articles and books and ideas to be shared, the products and services that can help others create value and change the world … and I’m amused and optimistic. Will all those ideas come to life some day? I doubt it – of course, not every idea is right for it’s time. But to me, this demonstrates that there are many ideas to share, great stories to be written, systems and processes to create (or take down!), products and services that will improve peoples’ lives … so much innovation available to individuals and teams and organizations.
We are not constrained on ideas – we are constrained on time and attention (even more than money!)
Early Days: All Energy, No Ideas
In the early days of my career, as a 25-year-old developer in a small software development firm, I worked on computer applications for property managers taking care of apartment complexes, strip malls, and office buildings. These days, you would call my first company a “startup”; thirty people rushing from customer to customer, with the sales team promising amazing functionality that I was hacking together in real-time at the back of the room. Just-in-time production … we were ahead of our time.
Back then, I was infected by the entrepreneurial bug. Inspired by my team’s creativity, I was having a blast – getting paid to write code while solving problems and creating opportunities for our customers. I was quite happy in my job – but I wanted more. I had the urge to build something all for myself. I wanted to start my own software business, and I had a ton of energy to get it done.
Unfortunately, I had no ideas. At least, I felt like I had no ideas.
I remember going to the bars with my buddy/roommate/coworker, enjoying a few cold ones while coming up with ideas like a system to plan a real estate agent’s appointments, mapping out an optimized route as they went from house to house, prospective buyers in tow. Of course, back in the late 1980s we had no idea how to source the data or “do the math” to read maps and optimize routes. But it was a great idea, and we were having loads of fun brainstorming on solving these intractable problems. Eventually, of course, we cried (okay, laughed) in our beer as we watched Google Maps appear and evolve, giving our ideas away for free.
We went through several similar examples back then – we “ideated” things like the on-screen calculator, disk storage virtualized on a minicomputer, and remote data synchronization. Of course, we also cried some more in our beers as Borland, IBM, and Lotus all realized these ideas and made millions.
Our lament was about impatience and ambition clashing with a lack of amazing, ground-breaking ideas. It’s hard to come up with the next killer app, and it’s really disappointing when your idea becomes available commercially (and somebody else made it happen).
Later Years: So Many Ideas, So Little Time
Fast forward thirty years, and now I am swimming in ideas. As a 55-year-old corporate executive, I was trying to maintain focus on my “full-time job” while scratching my coding itch by automating small processes, hacking on my websites, and blogging about it all. I had created lists upon lists of software ideas in mind maps, text files, web apps, note-taking outliners, and various office docs. There was a huge collection of content ideas for blog posts, podcasts, and books – enough to keep me busy for years.
But I had no time. At least, it felt like I had no time.
Back then, I had to focus on the job at hand. Over the years, I advanced through the leadership ranks as I moved up the classic career ladder. My job titles illustrated this progress, as I moved from manager to director to VP to Chief. As my scope of control increased, I got farther and farther away from the technology, focusing more on growing the business and leading an engaged organization. Don’t get me wrong – I was still having great fun. My business career was intellectually stimulating and challenging, across multiple markets, products, business structures, and geographies. I was fortunate to be shown the much bigger picture of what it meant to run a business, lead a team, engage with the community, and get things done through and with other people.
That bigger picture gave me a broader view and a bully pulpit. To this day, I am able to apply my breadth of experience and grasp of data, systems, and technology (all that scratchin’…) to help develop tons of ideas that help companies move the needle and make an impact. My style evolved from focusing on the things we had to do (“run the business”, as we used to say) to enabling the things we wanted to do (“enhance the business”). When we struck the right balance between these two ideas, we generated lots of ideas and a huge backlog, enough to keep the organization busy for years.
But we had no time. At least, it felt like we had no time.
New Ideas for Corporate Innovation
In the past few years, as I have transitioned out of the corporate world and back to my entrepreneurial roots, I have more control over my time and attention. I am tackling my backlog of ideas in exciting and fun ways – I feel productive, as I focus on the most impactful ideas. On that point – I have started work on my next book, examining ideas around innovation and how they apply to “traditional” organizations.
Watch this space in the coming weeks, as I capture more ideas and examples – and please join the conversation below. Let me know where you want this line of thinking to go!
Related Material from the Internet: For those who want a little bit more …
- (article) Why There’s No Such Thing as a Corporate Entrepreneur (Scott Kirsner, Harvard Business Review, Feb 2018)
Calling out the differences between entrepreneurs and internal corporate innovators. A quick read, check it out.
- (video) Where Good Ideas Come From (Steven Johnson, 2011)
This is a terrific, concise, and very engaging video will really get your mind moving.
- (article + video) The eight essentials of innovation (de Jong, Marston, Roth, McKinsey Quarterly, 2015))
Another framework / checklist of critical factors, this time matched with some survey data.
23 June, 2023