Hacking Corporate Innovation

Let’s play a little word-association game.

If I say Sony, what do you say? If you’re a teenager, your response is probably Playstation. But if you’re from my generation, the first word likely to pop into your brain is Walkman.

Ah, remember the glorious Walkman? Back in the 1980s, that chunky box clipped to the waistband of your acid-washed jeans was a more powerful status symbol than a pair of Air Jordans. Owning a Walkman — and later, it’s sleeker cousin, the Discman — meant you were so cool, so urban, so hip. You were such a music devotee that you couldn’t bear to be separated from your tunes for even a moment. Because it was the era of conspicuous consumption, a knockoff wouldn’t do. It had to be a Sony.

So, what happened? Sony was the biggest, baddest, most bodacious name in electronics in the world. It manufactured personal computers and cellphones and televisions and all things music. But in the last decade or so, the Japanese company has divested, downsized and dropped so many products from its roster that it’s now only really known for gaming.

The downfall of Sony is a cautionary tale about what happens when innovation fails.

I’m not saying that failure to innovate alone contributed to Sony’s shrinking portfolio. There were many economic, labor and market factors in the mix. But the company was unable to deliver on innovation to address ANY of those factors because they kept next-day, cutting-edge ideas siloed. Author Gillian Tett shared a telling moment about the company in an article that she aptly titled, “Why the Silo Effect Makes Us Stupid.”

Tett talked about Sony’s product unveiling to a packed Las Vegas showroom in 1999. Executives first showed off the Memory Stick Walkman, followed by the Vaio Music Clip. Both were digital music players. Audience members were confused about why the venerated company would release two similar products, a strategy that was ultimately doomed.

Tett wrote:

The reason Sony unveiled not one, but two different digital Walkman devices in 1999 was that it was beset with silos: different departments of the giant Sony empire had each developed their own, different digital music devices. None of these departments, or silos, was able to collaborate with each other, or agree on a single product approach. The different digital walkman products thus competed with each other, and cannibalized each other. That, in turn, made the products far weaker than anything Sony had produced before: they had none of the dazzle or confidence sense of dominance that the original Walkman had displayed.

Indeed, the products were so weak that within a couple of years they had disappeared. Sony, which had once appeared so utterly dominant in the world of portable music with its Walkman, had completely failed to move into the digital Walkman age.

The ideas behind my Smart Speed™ method is counter to most big corporate innovation efforts because it encourages everyday employees to innovate, not just the experts in IT or HR or R&D. Big companies, like Sony, tend to isolate innovation in those departments or in specially designed innovation labs because they believe it gives their best workers a chance to focus solely on the task. But when managers and executives follow that path, they sidestep amazing innovation opportunities that are all around them. When innovation is in a silo, it doesn’t take advantage of all the ideas, resources and collaborative insights from employees throughout the enterprise.

In the 21st century, it is no longer enough to use a small group to come up with innovation. In this hyper-connected, warp-speed business environment, there needs to be a consistent pipeline of innovation to stay relevant and competitive. The only way to keep pace is to use all your assets — including employees without an innovation title. I’m talking about everyone from the college intern to the veteran employee, from the mail clerk to the CEO.

Everyone in the organization must innovate. Innovation, along with the ability to accept and deliver change as fluid as checking your email, is the only way to thrive in this new environment.

I’m a big fan of computer scientist, inventor and all-around smart guy Ray Kurzweil. In 2001, he wrote a brilliant essay on what he termed “The Law of Accelerating Return.” Simply put, it’s the idea that growth speeds along at an exponential rate as innovation builds on itself. We create tools that help us leapfrog ahead to the next big thing. Examples of this are everywhere. Kurzweil points out the relatively short time it took humans to go from the invention of the wheel to the internet.

In the first 20 years of the 2Oth century, we saw more advancement than in all of the 19th century,” Kurzweil wrote. “Now, paradigm shifts occur in only a few years time. The World Wide Web did not exist in anything like its present form just a few years ago; it didn’t exist at all a decade ago.

While Kurzweil’s law is meant to be applied to technology, I see great parallels in other forms of business. Whether you work for a startup that’s trying to carve a new niche in the market or a legacy company that’s trying to stay relevant in this fast-changing landscape, Smart Speed™ is all about breaking down the barriers so innovation can flourish at all levels. If Sony had adopted Smart Speed long ago, perhaps I would be streaming music on my Xperia phone right now while typing this blog into my Vaio laptop.

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K. Melissa Kennedy

Chief Innovation Officer, Founder, Intrapreneur. Entrepreneur. Enthusiastic leader and speaker. Teller of truths at 48 Innovate
I spent many years working for and building successful companies. I parlayed that experience into a unique process for harnessing hidden assets inside organizations and turning them into big-idea-generating, $1-billion-revenue-producing resources. (Spoiler alert: it’s the people.) I'm an internationally acclaimed expert, happy to share the not-so-secrets that have led to impressive outcomes for Fortune 100 corporations, major educational institutions, start-up companies and entrepreneurs. Working with companies like Cisco, Lancope, Arby's, Capitol Broadcasting Company New Media - WRAL, PRSONAS, Cranfill Sumner & Hartzog, REVO Communications, Erno Group, Focus Carolina, Madan Global, UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, INZONE Brands, Albright Digital, Spring Metrics and NC State Kenan Fellows.

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