Sunday, November 2, 2008

Getting your Innovation Hive to Thrive

It is well known that raccoons are curious creatures; they love to handle food and objects with their tiny sensitive hands. In fact, many raccoon traps are baited with shiny objects such as coins, or foil. It turns out that raccoons will relentlessly hang on to a shiny object and become trapped.

In business sometimes our pursuit of innovation is much the same. We become fascinated, even fixated on our shiny object du jour sometimes not letting it go when we should. Organizations that don’t manage their innovation portfolios can get caught up in pursuing fascinating dead ends while the even shinier objects of yesterday go un-resourced and languish in the realm of the ordinary.

It is critically important that companies put in place vetting processes that pass thru shiny objects worth pursing while putting on ice or killing those that don’t measure up. Not every pursuit has to be a sure thing, hence the portfolio management approach. That said, too many organizations get caught up in pursuing too much with too little. This is especially prevalent in the tech sector where there is no shortage of ideas. Unfortunately there is sometimes no shortage of paths pursued as well and resources are spread thin to the point of personnel exhaustion and marketing place infectiveness.

If more raccoons were caught with their hands on the shiny object, starving to death, and increasingly desperate then this terribly unproductive practice would cease. However, corporate leadership, boards, and the culture in high tech companies tends to favor the shiny paths for those are the ones that everybody sees as the big payoffs. We are able to perfectly recall the successes of the Googles, Facebooks, and Apples even thinking that we are emulating them. However, we all suffer from amnesia when it comes to the countless companies and initiatives that fail to measure up or fail altogether.

It turns out that there are better role models than raccoons, namely, bees. Bees are equally fascinated but not with shiny objects. Their fascination is with pollen, water, and great digs. Each morning worker bees wake up (I wonder if bees have an equivalent of snoring and dreaming?) and venture off in a direction in search of pollen, water, and potentially better nesting ground. This pursuit by scout bees is necessary to sustain life for the entire colony. When a venturing scout bee encounters a stash of pollen, water, or great nesting site, it returns to the hive and performs a waggle dance. The energy exuded in the waggle dance signals to the surrounding bees the value of the treasure found.

Turns out that bees may be smarter than some corporate leaders. All bees in the colony do not follow one waggle dancing bee. Bees place many bets, in essence, as a colony they manage a portfolio that pays off with relative values of water and nectar. Any scout bee returning to the nest can perform the waggle dance with excitement equal to the value of the treasure they found. This is a fully inclusive process; no scouts returning to the nest are discriminated against because they don’t carry a certain title, possess a certain number of years experience or have a direct relationship with the Queen.

We can learn much from bees and raccoons. While raccoons are agile and can even climb headfirst down trees, bees are able to hover, fly, and change direction immediately when the situation calls. Raccoons amid all their curiosity are creatures that serve their own selfish purpose. Bees are no such creature. Bees appear to work alone but are always working in a larger distributed team for a common purpose to keep the hive alive and thriving.

Whether you lead an organization or simply work with or for one, be a little more like a bee and less like a raccoon and your hive may soon thrive too.

IDEA: Have a discussion with your team to brainstorm how you can work together more like bees and less like raccoons. Discuss how your organization handle shiny objects and whether you have the equivalent of an innovation waggle dance.