When the full force of a big organization is behind you, there is nothing quite like it. In the mid-90s, I planned out a next-generation Web site for a humanitarian organization. To my surprise, partners were approached, the deal was signed, and all I had to do was present the site to our CEO in six weeks. (Actually, my boss did the high-profile presentation, but I was the one who was on the hook.)
I had resources without limits. Coders built new applications over night. Designers offered up multiple mockups of pages, tuned by research into how eyeballs with respond to colors and shapes and locations. I got my pick of writers to create content to my specifications.
In the end, the site (delivered on time) was more than I’d imagined, and I can still see some of the advances it pioneered in sites today. This is not a typical experience for an innovator in a large organization.
There are many barriers to innovation in a large organization, especially if you don’t have the credentials of those designated to innovate. I’ve written about these previously (Barriers to Innovation and the Brave New Network and Barriers to Innovation).
Risk avoidance and siloing (separation of organizations and functions) are two of these, but a lack of resources tops the list for many would-be innovators. I used this as an excuse for years, and then I began to say “yes” to my creative impulses even when my organization seemed to say “no.” This meant reframing the goal and scavenging, and I was amazed at how success built upon success. Even without getting CEO endorsement, I saw many of my dreams come to life.
I think this is why frugal innovation struck a chord with me. Though it is blossoming in developing countries where resources are tight, I know from personal experience that it works within the resource constraints of a large organization. Here are the key practices of frugal innovation, with notes [in brackets] on how they can be adapted to get innovation started wherever you work:
- Simplify – Strip it down to reduce cost, cut down on maintenance and enable the use of unskilled labor. [In a large organization, this may mean finding the complete pieces that can be done with the available resources.]
- Use what’s local – In some areas, it is more efficient to have someone turning a crank than it is to automate. [Often, innovation concepts are conceived of in best case terms, with known components. A frugal innovator is able to reimagine surprising uses for the resources that are at hand.]
- Adapt skills, techniques and approaches creatively. [This is a matter of looking at human resources in a different way. No one’s capability is defined by a job title or a degree. People can always do much more. The great question: Can you help me do this? The key requirement: Being able to articulate what this is in a way that gets someone to answer, “yes.”]
- Instead of getting enraptured by high tech, look to the minimum technology that is needed to serve the customer. [Those who live in a high tech world tend to see innovation building on the actual inventions and techniques in use. This severely limits options. Getting the job done, without any bells and whistles, should be the primary goal. The question: How do I get from where I am now to a prototype or demonstration that will allow me to take the innovation forward?]
- Make the poor your market – and don’t stop development until you find a way to price within their means. [I was never in an organization where every group had everything they needed. Effective organizations are always informally giving and getting favors across teams and groups. Find a needy group that can use your idea in some form. Offer it to them as a favor. If it works, you get a proof point and an ally. (For a great book on finding local opportunities to innovate, check out Ideas Are Free.]
Frugal innovation isn’t of much direct help if the only way to realize you dream is by using a supercollider to run experiments. Some ideas are intrinsically large scale, and they can’t be broken down into smaller chunks. But most innovations don’t need multi-million dollar devices, and even geniuses with big appetites can use frugal innovation to create smaller successes apart from their dreams. And these can build the credentials needed to get access to more resources.
Within a large organization, great minds (available through networking) and more resources are potentially available, and there is always the hope that small successes will be noticed. But even if they are not, using the approaches to frugal innovation will provide experience and skills that will form you and your creative colleagues into more effective innovators.