Why does it seem like start-ups have the lock on innovation? Are they just better at marketing their work as such or is there something really at play in those offices, some magical pixie dust, that makes innovation easier?
Is it the standing-desks? It’s the standing desks isn’t it?
For any one in the public sector—or even professionals in larger enterprises—the challenge to “Be more innovative. Think like a start-up” can be a maddening one. It implies that staff at start-ups are just better somehow at coming up with new ideas. But is it true?
I’m sitting across from Steve Blank, author, serial-entrepreneur and Stanford professor when he gives me this unequivocal breath of fresh air. He should know; he arguably gave many of today’s startups their innovation mojo to begin with. Steve has been referred to as one of “The Godfathers of Silicon Valley.” His ideas on customer development, which first took shape in his book The Four Steps to The Epiphany, are credited with starting the lean start-up movement and influencing leaders like Eric Ries and Sean Ellis.
Not only is the start-up/innovation co-dependency a false narrative. It’s a dangerous one.
Two things happen when you equate innovation only with the start-up mentality.
Innovation is possible anywhere. You just can’t approach it the same way everywhere.
Steve, who lays out every word with a professorial precision, speaks as if chasing each sentence through the fog to a clearing point we’ll all see. He offers a framework to think about what fuels innovation in each type of organization.
Start-ups innovate because they are a blank sheet. Their entire opportunity sits in being able to think differently about a common problem. Innovation is a starting-point in these companies.
“You have to think about who’s funding startups. They’re risk capitalists.” Steve begins. “They’re thinking about what would happen if someone reinvented the entire hotel industry, taxi business. The incentive is different than a corporate incentive. [Corporations] already are the market leader. They just want to stay on top and execute their business model. The auto industry is a good example. They thought they were in the internal combustion business, and they forgot that they were in the personal transportation business.”
In government, Steve suggests, it’s crisis.
Take, for example, the rapidly changing nature of war. Today’s sliding definition of war is beginning to push us toward new notions. “We used to not have competition outside of the Soviet Union. We both inched forward. But the game has changed,” Steve explains. “We have terrorists that don’t follow the rules. The military is spending money on drones, they’re using drones off the shelf. We now have Russia, China, Iran, North Korea. We never planned for that.” So that crisis necessitates a shift in perspective and creates new, innovative actions in response.
“The U.S. military is innovative in wartime,” Steve says. “The problem is in peacetime we don’t have an innovation pipeline.”
In every organization there are circumstances that create the conditions for innovation and circumstances that stifle or snuff it. Just like the conditions that spark innovation, these vary.
Since the name of the game in start-ups is disruption or category creation, the sole inhibitor to innovation is having the time and the funds to pull it off. Enterprises are a little different. They have to consciously create side teams to explore new horizons while maintaining their core business. It’s not easy, but at least you have choices. You can develop an internal team, partner or acquire your way into new areas, then fold that exploration back into the core business when it has matured or divert from your core business to this new fertile one.
“Government agencies—are different again,” Steve explains to me. “They have to work with what is legally mandated.”
“You mean they can’t break the law,” I offered.
No. He countered. It’s more that their whole perspective is pre-defined by the law.
To understand this you have to get into semantics, but the semantics in this case are pretty meaningful.
“The government is operated by contractors. And you need to have a goal in a contract,” he says. So the end-state is already defined. There is no room for discovery. There is no room for uncertain ends. That is quite literally the antithesis of start-ups which, with funding, are permitted to go down paths without known conclusions. It doesn’t matter if you’re not profitable now. It doesn’t matter if you’re not yet at product-market fit. The exploration is the thing.
So how do you fuel innovation in government outside of times of crisis? You create the conditions. You allow the uncertainty. Rather than writing the contract with the expressed end in mind. You allow people in government agencies to get out of the box. To talk with beneficiaries, program managers, legal experts, financiers—anyone with stake or influence in the problem. You push the established rules and routes aside for a period of time and get comfortable with the notion that there may be dead ends.
This is happening in fits and starts across government agencies today. But Steve, who has sparked a wave of Stanford courses enabling innovation in defense, diplomacy, anti-poverty efforts, and the sciences, hopes it will take root in every corner of our government. We need to stop thinking about innovation as some magical trait limited to certain types of people.
There is no magic in black turtlenecks or standing desks.
There is only strategic observation, practice, and getting the heck out of the building. Each conversation outside of your purview teaches you something. Each dead-end can be more valuable than problematic.
More ongoing experimentation like this—which Steve refers to as a pipeline—would enable us to innovate in peacetime and to be faster to solutions in times of crisis. It would make innovation a common and un-magical thing.
Author: Meghan Keaney Anderson, VP of Marketing at @HubSpot, interested in tech, social innovation, writing, and just about any action movie from the early 90s