Innovating in a large organisation

We caught up with Han Gerrits who has 15 years of experience working with large multi-million pound organisations to help them build their capabilities, departments and systems for successful innovation.

Time and time again Han has seen the same problems stopping successful innovation in large organisations. He shared, in his experience the biggest barriers to innovation.

Rules and regulations that don’t allow for experimentation

Han is currently a partner at an international audit firm and audit in particular is heavily regulated and has a strict set of operating rules making it hard to innovate. Han believes that in a big organisation, successful innovation requires a different set of rules from business as usual.

For example, in the context of innovation, failure is a positive learning experience. There is an understanding and an acceptance that success is not guaranteed. A new innovation needs time for experimentation and learning.

Thomas Edison failed over 9,000 times before he made the light bulb that worked. This experiment and learn approach, critical for innovation, is not part of the rules and is not tolerated in normal business operations.

Short timescales and lack of focus

The next common stumbling block for innovation in large organisations is a cycle of investing budget for a new idea or innovation programme, the test and learn approach isn’t given enough time to succeed and the project or programme is stopped because it ’didn’t work’. Then months later the innovation programme is revisited and the start stop cycle repeats itself, never given long enough to learn.

According to Han, it’s not just the timescale that lets the innovation down, its lack of focus. Companies that are good at innovation have a strategic focus in a limited amount of areas. This means that every failed experiment has valuable and highly relevant learning which leads onto the next experiment and ultimately innovation success.

The need to protect the core business

“Most big organisations are risk averse. They are anxious about doing anything that might disturb their core business that brings in the money.”

Google says “chaos is good” and that “freedom from constraints delivers new ideas”. But even that only applies in certain parts of Google’s business. Their data centres don’t allow any chaos or experimentation, because their business relies on their servers being 100% reliable 100% of the time.

So whilst Han hears organisations talking about innovation and disruption, when it comes to the potential disruption of core business systems, large organisations are rarely keen to support innovation.

For example Han shared an experience with a checklist for new ideas. There were two fundamental questions to decide if an idea was worth perusing. “Have we done this before?” and “Do we know this client?” If the answer to either question is no then the idea gets turned down straight away. This meant that the focus was only ever on existing products to existing clients. As soon as something didn’t follow those rules it was stopped, making the opportunity to try something genuinely new non-existent in practice.

Is innovation a good career move?

Often in large organisations people are consciously navigating a career path. They are looking for their next job within the company. If as an individual, you fear that a ‘failed’ project could signal the end of a career you’ll never be able to innovate and the innovation department isn’t an attractive career move.

Han suggests that this is compounded by newly appointed innovation managers often over promising results with inadequate resource. There is a high churn rate a lot of innovation managers leave within three years then move onto a new innovation role and start again which has an impact on organisational innovation and learning.

Han’s innovation tips for innovating in a big company…

  • Focus innovation themes around the strategic plans of the business
  • Consider how external forces will have an impact on your core business and force innovation e.g. how might 3D printing or the internet of things affect the business you are in?
  • If you don’t have budget, time and motivation to innovate – then don’t
  • If the top management doesn’t want to do innovation then don’t do it – it’s a waste of energy
  • Engage with all employees to make improvements in current practice – this creates a culture where everyone is an innovator
  • You need bravery and energy – innovation is about doing not thinking
  • Innovation touches a lot of different functions. You need to build the right connections over different teams. If you are not well-connected – work with someone who is
  • Get some success fast
  • Communication is very important – you have to tell people many times before they come on board.

Read more about other successful innovators in the new Innovation Leadership Launchpad – a mix of case stories and practical tips to help you innovate. Order your free copy straight into your inbox today. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *