One of the biggest challenges that stifles innovation and creativity in intrapreneurs (corporate entrepreneurs) is getting management buy-in. As I dug around online and offline resources, communication was cited as the main reason behind that. Digging around a little bit more made it clear that there is a more important reason: Six Sigma. You see, leaders today probably went on their early career training in the late ’90s. A time when Six Sigma (and later on Lean Six Sigma) was taking the corporate world by storm. The basic premise of these management styles is to reduce variability (Six Sigma) and waste (Lean methodologies). Now I don’t have anything against both managerial approaches, but they starkly contrast that of design thinking and innovation.
Six Sigma and TQM systems drive out waste from the business as currently configured, but they will not generate innovative new business designs. KM [Knowledge Management] systems will organise all the knowledge in a corporation, but they cannot produce imaginative breakthroughs. (The Design of Business, pg. 43)
Roger Martin beautifully explained the difference in his book The Design of Business through what he calls a knowledge funnel: every novel activity moves through the knowledge funnel from mystery to heuristic to algorithm. In the mystery stage, you are opening up to exploration through research and inquiry. You then narrow down to a general rule of thumb; a heuristic. As you put your heuristic through repetitive cycles of operation and iteration, you get the activity down to an algorithm (like Kroc’s systematic process at McDonald’s). Now here is where the gap lies: Six Sigma is deployed at the algorithm stage whereas innovation frameworks (design thinking for example) are used to aid in moving from the mystery stage to the heuristic stage of the knowledge funnel. Leaders at your company are probably trained, at no fault of their own, to be masterminds in the algorithm stage only. Little effort was done at the exploratory stage (which is where innovation lies).
So how does Six Sigma differ from innovation in application?
I’ll give you an example. Let’s say you work at a petrochemical company that produces polyethylene pellets. And in the packaging facility, you have huge bagging machines that fill empty bags with the correct amounts of these pellets. An issue arises when a considerable amount of pellets (over a period of time) find their way on the floor of your packaging facility. If we hire a Six Sigma specialist to tackle this problem, he’d go on applying the techniques and steps he has learned in order to minimize this issue. Notice how he stays within the constraints of the system he’s solving for. An innovator on the other hand, will look beyond just the system he’s given. He might propose designing a new device that collects these pellets and liquidates them to become feedstock for a 3D printer.
Ok, I get it. So how do I break that barrier with my boss?
Become a better salesperson. Simple as that.
A smart salesperson sells what he offers in the buyer’s terms. He uses the buyer’s lingo. He understands the buyer, rephrases his offering, and then pitches. You should do the same when you are seeking buy-in for your initiative. Your manager / leader / whomever you are trying to sell your initiative to is used to hard numbers. Dollar signs. Evidence-based data. Unfortunately, most (if not all) innovative efforts are leaps into the future where data does not yet exist.
His [Charles Sanders Peirce] important insight was that it is not possible to prove any new thought, concept, or idea in advance: all new ideas can be validated only through the unfolding of future events. (The Design of Business, Pg. 25)
Do your research in this part and project what your initiative might provide in terms of revenue for the company. I guarantee your odds at getting buy-in will be much higher. Still not getting buy-in? Let’s talk.