Oil tankers and Zodiacs – Change as the only constant factor & noncommittal advice for large companies

Back in May 2012 I was asked to have a conversation with a big internationally operating beverage manufacturer. A large team of blue suits came by in The Netherlands to talk about innovation and food. After my short pitch about our company TOP I was asked for advice about innovation processes within large companies. Well, I had. These advices have been on my blog for years, originating from the world of systems engineering. Harold van Garderen has spent years training me in this area during the heydays of Community of Talents (#CoT).

Back to the beverage manufacturer. My advice boiled down to:

  • Don’t think from the perspective of a large R&D or Innovation department. These are not creative, they only create a monoculture, especially in large companies.
  • Start a lot of small(er) projects and dare to waste time. Put enough money – at least a couple of tons – into these projects and put your best people to the task. You need to provide a safety net for them though, let’s call it a return guarantee.
  • “Let go” of these projects and trust your people. Letting go means ‘outside the structures of the bigger organization’. Let them consider it as a start-up. Multinationals should start internal incubators.
  • The external projects get only one precondition: Report back at the central organization when there’s success.

In systems engineering this is also called safe-fail. Innovation profits from spoilage, experimenting and accepting that sometimes projects fail.

What do you need to do this? Trust and space! The MBA-manager who thinks he can steer creativity and innovation through his spreadsheet, is more likely to kill than to stimulate innovation. But of course it needs to be done in a safe-fail setting. A metaphor we use for this within TOP is “the oil tanker and the zodiacs”. This metaphor has two sides. An oil tanker is stable, steady in its course and can withstand a sturdy storm, but an oil tanker is hard to move. Zodiacs however are cheap, flexible, quick (and a bit more vulnerable).

Being able to move is – in a society in transition to the 6th cycle of Kondratieff – needed more than ever. I call it “the only constant factor is that tomorrow is different”. Companies – big and small – will profit therefor from being able to swarm and by all means prevent procedures and company-DNA from blocking the innovative flow. This means that also oil tankers have to learn to move, which will develop through letting go of a lot of zodiacs. Heinz demonstrates in the Netherlands within a year that innovation centers don’t work’. Unilever already concluded that a long time ago. And I think FrieslandCampina will come to the same conclusion within 3 years from now. What needs to be done now is show the Ministry of Economic Affairs that top institutes or PPS’s won’t lead to more innovation. And universities are meant for education, not for innovation.

Governments and big companies should realize that “grand designs” don’t work (anymore). nor does manufacturability (if it ever existed).

The metaphor of the Oil tankers and Zodiacs is included in the rough material of “Making Progress, the movie”. It will be available online shortly. At the 2012 version of Top Technology Talks I mentioned the metaphor (at 9:35), as well as at a lecture at a large Dutch company in 2011. This company has – just like the beverage manufacturer mentioned in my introduction – not yet begun to move.

To all large companies I frequently say: “also oil tankers can sink, and the Roman Empire didn’t last forever. Move! Dare to let go!” 

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