Be understated or be the underdog

Before staking their reputations on an idea, innovators need to work under the radar for a while, Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg argues

Learning to be a little understated could be a vital skill for successful innovators in organisations, according to the author of a new book.

Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg says many innovation initiatives fail because their promoters go at them all-guns-blazing, seeking buy-in from the top too early. Instead, they should go about their initiatives quietly, acquiring resources internally and building proof of concept under the radar before staking their reputations on their new initiative.

"It's important to recognise that in most cases, others will not have fallen head over heels in love with your idea as much as you have," Wedell-Wedellsborg tells The Irish Times.

In Innovation as Usual , Wedell-Wedellsborg and co-author Paddy Miller, both academics at the IESE Business School at the University of Navarra, Barcelona, describe a process they call "stealthstorming".


Stealthstorming, as they describe it, involves five elements: connecting people to power brokers; creating a story around their idea; making them demonstrate value early; helping them to achieve more resources; and assisting them in managing their personal brands.

Confirmation bias
One of the key reasons why stealth innovation makes sense is that once a judgment has been made on your idea, that's generally it. Even if you prove down the line with prototypes and market research that you were right and that there is a market for your ground-breaking mousetrap, it is often too late if you have blown your cover too early. "It's very difficult in most organisations for bosses to change their minds and admit they were wrong. Confirmation bias tends to occur."

Playing organisational politics is important if you want to achieve results. Some innovators neglect to play the realpolitik of working in a big organisation. “Successful innovation is as much about politics as great ideas. Politics is seen as negative but it works both ways. If you harness it correctly, you can use it to propel your idea with great speed.”

Referencing management thinker Clayton Christensen, Wedell-Wedellsborg notes that it is also important to distinguish between sustaining innovation, which helps sustain and grow the current business, and disruptive innovation, which tends to reconfigure or even destroy the way industries work.

“The problem with game-changing ideas is that they tend to disrupt not only the market, but also the internal way of operating, and that makes it likely that internal gatekeepers will either kill them or turn them into more incremental ideas,” he says.

Many corporate innovation efforts are trapped on what the authors call “Brainstorm Island”. On these annual innovation trips, people are sent on a professionally facilitated off-site meeting, spending two days brainstorming for ideas. After this, however, they return to a workplace where nothing has changed and, within days, everyone is back to doing business as usual.

Creative path
"The reality is, you won't find good ideas by spending two days a year on Brainstorm Island. The pursuit of innovation should not be an exceptional event; quite the contrary, it should be unexceptional, something that takes place on the other 363 days of the year. As a leader, you have to help your people take the creative path, not just once, but as a repeated pattern of behaviour," says Wedell-Wedellsborg.

To have an innovative organisation, you need to have an “innovation architect”, the authors note in the book. This person’s job is about tweaking the workplace so potential innovators find it easier to take the creative path and become actual innovators. As a leader, they say, you should not try to change the people you have; rather, you should change the environment in which they work so it becomes easier to innovate.

Focus is vital, Wedell-Wedellsborg adds. “Innovation doesn’t work by giving people total freedom and having a blank sheet of paper. There needs to be a focus around an objective, such as a solution to a problem, or else it doesn’t go anywhere, so some degree of definition is really important.”

When considering innovation in organisations, there is a tendency to look for “poster boy” examples such as the Apples and Facebooks of the business world, Wedell-Wedellsborg says. “The reality is that many of the most inspirational innovations you will come across are found in the subdivisions of large companies.”

Innovation as Usual by Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg and Paddy Miller is published by Harvard Business Review Press