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Trying to Create Tomorrow’s Company with Yesterday’s Rules and Tools: Part 1

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If you have ever been to a TED talk or OpenCo conference or any other semi-chaotic gathering of clever Millennials you’ve experienced the new rules of innovation first hand. Everything moves quickly, changes frequently, no one seems to be in charge but everyone except you seems to be in on the joke. All you need to play along is a smart phone, an obscure app, fluency in arcane chat slang and prehensile thumbs. By the time you get the hang of it the party’s over. Like a flock of migrating birds these groups have no center but somehow manage to fly together and reach a distant destination just in time.

Conventional thinking has it that these youngsters are narcissistic slackers who lack the intellectual prowess or willpower of the brawny Boomers.After all, we went to the moon and back, put the miracle in all manner of drugs and made the music of our monstrous stereos dance on the head of a pin. Though our accomplishments may be Homeric they are in fact mostly an extension of the work of the Great Generation and the Great War that defined it. Bigger, smaller, faster or longer our achievements are elaborations of fundamental shifts that occurred over half a century ago. Our technology gives away our actual age – combustion engines, integrated circuits, microwaves, antibiotics and the like. More so, our social institutions while having undergone some freshening are also essentially the same – marriage, religion, political parties and corporations.

Visit your local fair trade coffee shop and you may see Gen Next in their native habitat. If you are truly observant you will notice how they have opted out of our Boomer world – more text and less talk, über-multitasking, ad hoc transportation, dot.org start ups, personalized self-help spirituality and friends with benefits. They work horizontally, spontaneously and are connected primarily by their values – we can do it – as opposed to our vertical generation which is fueled by personal ambition – you can do it. They succeed in their cause by ignoring our traditional boundaries – race, preference, intellectual property and even capitalism itself. So how do we lead innovation in a generation that doesn’t follow leaders? How do you measure the success of an innovation if the aim is social good instead of economic value created? How do you innovate in an institution when the new workforce doesn’t believe or participate in institutions? The answer is simple – you don’t.

The Need for Speed and Magnitude

What has fundamentally changed is that Millennials don’t want the same things we did when we were young and consequently are refusing to pursue that same future in that same way. If you are able to suspend your voice of judgment for a moment – along with your cultural heritage and technical training - you may just see that this generation is changing the way we create and offers those of us who are no longer on the sunny side of the hill some new ways of making innovation happen in our old companies.

The truth is that many of the tools we routinely use in multinational corporations to develop innovations are well over a half century old:

Phase-gate systems were established by chemical companies in the 1940’s because compounds were developed sequentially before the age of molecular engineering.
TRIZ was a creative problem solving technique developed to help overcome the resource constraints of ship building in the Soviet Union during the Second World War.
New product portfolio management was developed as a way of connecting and leveraging a complex array of existing assets to generate incremental improvements during the reign of the robber barons at the turn of the century – the 19 Century.
While these approaches have been updated their underlying basis is essentially the same. They assume a world view that is no longer entirely relevant – economies of scale, organizational hierarchy and evolutionary market development for example. The global economy that emerged after the fall of the Berlin Wall added four billion new participants to the old Capitalist world and changed both the speed and magnitude at which innovation now emerges. The omnipresent web, inexpensive hand held devices and research universities with international presence have accelerated the transition to a decentralized, real time and unbound world where anyone can innovate anywhere anytime. This is too much and too fast for traditional innovation practices to handle. Politicians, patent lawyers and investment bankers alike are all showing signs that can’t keep up with this pace but are still unwilling or unable to adopt new innovation practices. Perhaps the old adage had it right - “Better the devil you know than the devil you don't know.”

Next time we will explore what are the new rules and tools of innovation that will drive tomorrow’s company.

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