Before You Innovate, You First Must Kill Your Company

This article is adapted with permission from “Kill the Company: End the Status Quo, Start and Innovation Revolution” by Lisa Bodell (Bibliomotion, 2012).

By Lisa Bodell, Founder and CEO, futurethink

In today’s economy, innovation is the lifeblood of success. Companies are investing major resources in training employees to“think big,” “get inspired,” and nimbly embrace change. Some have made significant progress in the last several years, but most innovation initiatives fall flat. Why? Because too many change initiatives simply add another layer of processes to the to-do lists of already overwhelmed and tired employees. Rather than piling on more, you must begin by getting rid of things rather than continually building on what doesn’t work. In effect, you must “kill” your company.

“Kill the Company” is a training exercise that prompts people to consider the standard question—“How can we beat the competition?”—and instead ask, “How can the competition beat us?” By putting yourself in the competition’s shoes and analyzing how to sink the company, you expose the things that are holding the company back—often the same things that are squashing employee engagement and innovation. By questioning assumptions and challenging rules that have outlived their time, “killing” the company makes space for value-added work and innovation.

A long time ago, I realized that if you want to become more innovative, innovation often cannot be your starting point. Decades of experience have taught me that organizations that struggle with innovation commonly have entrenched behaviors and cultures that deflate their innovative spirit. To change the trajectory of these firms, you have to kill the company first.

“Kill the Company” is much more than a single exercise. For any company committed to reaching its full potential, it’s the first step toward greatness. Only after you’ve killed your company will you be able to tap into the innovation that will transform it into a killer company.

Microscope vs. Telescope

Most companies, even successful ones, do not sustain a culture conducive to innovation. As they grow in size and complexity, it becomes hard for them to see what’s happening beyond their own walls. Their internal groups or divisions can become insular, resulting in creative and managerial silos that have no idea what anyone else is working on at any particular moment or what others’ strategic plan looks like. Companies often wind up using a microscope to scrutinize their isolated internal efforts rather than a telescope to keep a broad view toward the future. As the speed of change increases and demand for results continues to grow, critical thinking in all its forms—questioning, creating, inventing, exploring—too often takes a backseat to efficiency, output, and short-term ROI.

Corporate culture can become increasingly rigid and risk averse. In fact, companies have created so many complicated processes to quantify their actions, heighten their efficiency, reduce their risk, and measure results that employees at all levels are simply overwhelmed. Businesspeople today spend so much time in meetings, reading/writing e-mails and reports, and addressing politics and policies that there’s little time or brain space left to deal with creating long-term value. We’ve been robbed of the ability to create a thoughtful, risk-tolerant corporate culture that supports innovation and investments for the future. For most people, innovative thinking has become a one-time PowerPoint exercise reserved for the annual strategic plan.

Therein lies the dilemma, because even as we shunt aside innovation in favor of more immediately gratifying business initiatives, most of us know that innovation—the ability to develop novel and useful ideas with a business purpose—is what will really drive growth and carry our organizations into the future. It’s, therefore, imperative that we better balance how much time we spend working internally on ways to make the status quo more efficient with time we spend examining what’s changing externally so we can start questioning the status quo altogether. We need to accept some risk, because innovation requires taking risks. We need to find ways to develop and support a culture that makes room for innovative insight. A company mired in complicated processes and short-term results is simply not in a position to encourage innovation, no matter how many new programs its leaders talk about or implement, or how often they demand innovation from their employees. It just won’t work. To create the company of tomorrow, you must break down the bad habits, silos, and inhibitors that exist today. That’s why you have to kill the company first. It’s probably the most innovative thing a leader can do.

You’re not going to literally kill the company, of course—not the one you dreamed up and built with your sweat, nor the one you wanted to work for because you were a fan of its amazing products, nor the one you admired because you believed it provided an essential service. But the zombie company it has become, the one infected by the twin viruses of negativity and complacency, the one populated by frustrated, worn-out employees, the one dragging its feet through the muck of processes, short-term metrics, and the status quo? That company needs to be destroyed.

Think, Question, Take Risks

Everyone has the power to innovate. Most of the people I work with could set the world on fire with the brilliance of the ideas they come up with in our training sessions. The challenge for most companies isn’t how to get people to be more innovative; it’s how to stop paying lip service to innovation and create a structure and culture in which it actually can flourish and deliver results. The good news is that there are proven frameworks and client-tested tools to guide you. The goal is to empower yourself and those around you to do some things that in today’s business world have become daring acts: to think, to question, and to take risks.

The traditional organizational structures—where process trumps culture and where output trumps input—have innovation in a choke hold. But you and your organization can break free. Our approach is designed to help release you and your colleagues from the constraints of typical corporate culture. And rather than implement one more layer of processes to rule your lives, it actually will eliminate those processes and simplify your work.

Whether your company is struggling or sailing high right now, ask yourself whether your focus is in the right place. If you allow yourself to get stuck in the status quo, you’ll sacrifice the big-picture view of what really matters. Creating a culture where innovation can thrive is a strategic goal that cannot be put off until tomorrow. It starts today.

This article is adapted with permission from “Kill the Company: End the Status Quo, Start and Innovation Revolution” by Lisa Bodell (Bibliomotion, 2012). For more information, visit http://www.killthecompany.com.

Lisa Bodellis the founder and CEO of futurethink, an innovation research and training firm that helps businesses embrace change and become world-class innovators.

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