Into the Future: Why innovation often fails in larger companies

Here's how it can be harnessed effectively

Medium and large companies often struggle to be innovative. Senior leaders will say what they believe are the right things, such as “let’s be more like Apple” or “let’s think and behave like a startup.” But innovative behaviours and outcomes often don’t follow. In my experience, this lack of success often boils down to three factors:

  • Innovation is only seen as massive in nature.
  • Moonshot innovation isn’t properly supported.
  • Everyday innovation isn’t understood and developed.

Innovation comes in all shapes and sizes

Many corporate leaders and employees associate the word innovation with large-scale invention. This leads many employees and managers to assume that they cannot influence innovation at their company—that innovation must be a mandate or special project sponsored by the executive team.

In truth, innovation can be achieved in two forms: via an executive-sponsored moonshot project, and also through everyday innovation that is practised by employees at all levels. I use the term everyday innovation to refer to the ideation and implementation of any small but meaningful change. This could be a process improvement that makes workflow more efficient, a reduction in documentation requirements that makes your customers happier or adopting a practice that humanizes meetings and elevates inclusion among your employees. The companies that pursue everyday innovation in equal measure to moonshot innovation will be the ones that survive, and ultimately win, in the years ahead.

Moonshot innovation must be structurally supported

One of the best business analyses that I’ve ever read is “The Ambidextrous Organization” by Charles A. O’Reilly III and Michael L. Tushman. They argue that ambidextrous organizations are successful at moonshot innovation because they “separate their new, exploratory units from their traditional, exploitative ones, allowing them to have different processes, structures and cultures.” In other words, moonshot divisions or projects can’t be held to the same rules as mature organizations, rules such as restrictive cost controls, hiring practices, marketplace experimentation rights and the like. Rather, they need to be structurally supported to rapidly experiment, fail, learn, try again and so on until they ultimately discover what success looks like for them.

During my 28 years and counting with Telus, this approach has served us incredibly well and has led to the creation of several new companies that are key to the corporation’s current and future growth, including Telus International, Telus Health and Telus Agriculture.

Everyday innovation must be understood and developed

The easiest part of everyday innovation is being a forward-thinking leader and encouraging your employees at all levels to innovate through the identification and implementation of small but meaningful changes. However, this alone will not yield the results you are hoping for. You must complement your supportive leadership style with helping your employees understand, learn and practise everyday innovation.

Understanding can be achieved through the discussion and celebration of examples, such as those I cited earlier. Learning can be achieved through several means, like courses or micro-coaching programs, and it must focus on the fact that innovation is formulaically the multiple of creativity and courage. Creativity, counter to the prevailing view of many, can be learned. The final ingredient is practising innovation, and this is where courage comes in. Leaders must create an environment that encourages thoughtful ideation, experimentation and mistakes. Only then will employees develop the courage to speak up and pursue everyday innovation.

Getting started

Whether you are an executive or a frontline leader, I encourage you to put some of these ideas into practice. Don’t worry about getting it all perfect out of the gate; rather, pick one practice, get started, make mistakes, learn from them and continuously improve. After all, this is what innovation is all about.