It is no accident that small businesses so often run innovation circles around large corporations. Though almost all large corporations today started small and innovative, they seem to lose their ability to innovate when they get big.
About the only way big companies, flush with resources, seem to innovate these days is when they buy the smaller companies that have the big ideas. Have none of the leaders of large corporations stopped to wonder why smaller, less-resourced companies, staffed by a small group of people struggling together, are the ones who usually come up with all the latest innovations? Size and resources are not necessarily the advantage.
Redefining the Struggle
Sharing a struggle for limited resources and working with people who are intent on building something out of nothing is a good formula for a small business. But recreating those conditions is extremely difficult for organizations that have already suffered together and succeeded. This is one of the reasons we find Apple such a fascinating company. It has repeated its success multiple times, from the Apple I & II to the Macintosh and the iMac, from the iPod and iTunes to the iPhone. Instead of just looking for new ways to sell old products (which is largely what most successful companies do), they invented new products and competed in new industries.
We know that our species is not built for abundance and that our internal systems can short-circuit when we are in environments of abundance. We know that we are at greater risk of succumbing to the addictive qualities of short-term, dopamine-driven incentive structures in our companies if the chemicals that influence our behavior are out of balance. We also know that we won’t pull together until the oxytocin and serotonin are able to flow more easily.
Leaders of successful organizations, if they wish to innovate or command loyalty and love from their people, must reframe the struggles their companies face not in absolute terms but in terms relative to their success. In other words, the dangers and opportunities that exist outside the "circle of safety" should be exaggerated to suit the size of the organization itself. Let me explain.
A small company struggles because it does not have the resources to guarantee it will stay alive. Survival is a very real concern. It is how well the people pull together to outthink their problems that often makes the difference between success and failure. Trying to buy one’s way out of problems is less effective and unsustainable.
A larger, more successful company, in contrast, doesn't fear for its life because it is flush with resources. Survival is not the motivator, growth is. But we already know that growth is an abstract and non-specific destination that doesn’t ignite the human spirit. What ignites the human spirit is when the leaders of our organizations offer us a reason to grow. Aiming for the quarter or the year just isn't that compelling, it doesn't offer much of a struggle. That's not to say it's easy--it may or may not be. But the resources are readily available for the company to accomplish such goals . . . or come close.
To really inspire us, we need a challenge that outsizes the resources available. We need a vision of the world that does not yet exist. A reason to come to work. Not just a big goal to achieve. This is what leaders of great organizations do. They frame the challenge in terms so daunting that literally no one yet knows what to do or how to solve it.
Bill Gates set Microsoft on a path to put a PC on every desk. What happened to that vision? Though Microsoft may have largely achieved its goal in the developed world, that goal is still a long, long way from being accomplished. Like a small business, if a large organization can frame their challenge relative to their existing capacity, the people will figure it out--that's where innovation comes from. (Sadly, due in large part to the poor leadership of Steve Ballmer, an inclination to throw money at problems and sacrifice people when necessary, the leaders of Microsoft sabotaged the very conditions required to drive the innovation they sought.)
Steve Jobs set out to, in his words, "put a dent in the universe." More practically stated, he believed that the only way for us to truly capture the full value of technology is to adapt the technology to fit the way we live our lives instead of requiring that we adapt our lives to fit the way the technology works. This explains why intuitive interfaces and simplicity were key to helping him advance his vision.
If the leaders of organizations give their people something to believe in, if they offer their people a challenge that outsizes their resources but not their intellect, the people will give everything they've got to solve the problem. And in the process, not only will they invent and advance the company, they may even change an industry or the world in the process (just as an early version of Microsoft did). But if the resources are vastly greater than the problem before us, then the abundance works against us.
Though it may take small steps to make a big leap, it is the vision of the big leap and not the action of the small steps that inspires us. And only after we have committed ourselves to that vision can we look back at our lives and say to ourselves that the work we did mattered.