This will be my last regular column in Media Post. It’s been an honor to have served this audience, and MediaPost, for these many years.
I have been fortunate for almost 44 years to have been paid to innovate and create change in organizations large and small. Today’s post is about some things I’ve learned. It applies to everyone -- because almost everyone wants to make a contribution, and almost everyone can imagine ways to make their company or their product better.
Do not insult the crocodile until you cross the river. With any change, there will be barriers to overcome. “Barrier bashing” was a popular meme in innovation at some point, but it’s dangerous. You will, of course, bash down barriers, but for every barrier there is a reason, and a bureaucrat/gatekeeper. Your close-in colleagues are easy to persuade, so most barriers arise in places where you are an outsider. Be graceful and positive as you approach unknown territory, and you may get across the river unscathed.
Where you stand depends on where you sit. This aphorism -- Miles’ Law, after its originator -- is critical to understanding who will object to an idea, and who will support it.
Be assured, people will react according to how any innovation supports their immediate business. Remember, all innovation impinges on an existing process, and all processes worth changing (media-buying, for example) are supported by an entrenched bureaucracy. And as we all know, the true mission of all bureaucracy is self-preservation.
Give the bird a chance to fly. By all means (or any means!) run tests that are as realistic as possible. If the tests are honest, and they fail, then try again.
However, how many chances should you get? As you see your vision come to life, you will become emotionally involved with its success. Innovators should be advocates, but overzealous advocacy is at the root of most massive failures. This is your Elizabeth Holmes moment. Will you bullshit yourself and the world? Or do you have the integrity to present a balanced, objective view, even if it hurts?
Disruption is not necessarily good. When you change a process, there’s bound to be some disruption, but that’s not the goal. Learning to manage change is the key to successful innovation, and change management is all about reducing disruption. Massive innovations (like the internet) do in fact disrupt entire industries. Still, I’ve met several web pioneers, and none of them mentioned disruption as an objective.
Culture eats strategy for lunch. Many external CEOs and consultants have been spit out by the culture after a short honeymoon because their agenda was too threatening. Culture transcends authority.
If you don’t ask, you won’t get. As a leader, ask for innovation, and for ideas that support your goals. The best direction I ever received was from a TV executive who said, “There’s a lot of demand in the digital world for video. How can I get some of that?” From that simple question came the Dish Exchange, the first real programmatic supply of television impressions.
Go deep and mine wisdom. Find people who hate the idea and seek to understand them. This will help you anticipate objections.
Also, do whatever it takes to get quality time with people who think deeply on the subject. Don’t forget to ask people to imagine: What would have to be true for this idea to come to life?
Fail fast, often, and small. Much is written about this. Half the value of speed is learning faster. Failing small simply means you won’t eat your budget without getting a few more chances to learn. Don’t do all your testing in-vitro. Get your hands dirty. Simulate the output or the outcome to see what happens if the idea comes to life in scale. Build prototypes. Get data.
Maintain a portfolio of ideas. Many good ideas come at the wrong time. Preserve them. Have a backlog, and institutionalize a process that lets better ideas get higher priority.
Give it away. Ideas are ephemeral. They come from the ether, and it’s an innovator’s job to bring them to life.
My mother used to tell me I could not own an idea. The ideas, she claimed, happened because of my environment and experience, none of which I actually controlled.
She was right. Let go of “my idea.” Help your fragile idea survive by coaxing it out of someone else.
Happy new year. Stay well.