One of the best things about my last employer is that almost anyone in the company who had a good idea would be allowed to try to run with it. “Entrepreneur” was a valued part of the culture. That didn’t mean the idea would be implemented, but no one would stop you from trying. In fact, there’s a process to help, that starts with a document (the fabled “6 Pager“) — and dozens of revisions and reviews. If the document survives increasing levels of examination up through the ranks, then a high-level blessing was enough to form a team and take a run at it. There’s no quibbling about budgets — although every idea gets less resources than was originally estimated (frugality breeds innovation, or so the leadership principle claimed) so you always start behind the eight ball. But basically every product and brilliant quirk of that giant retailer started this way: someone with a good idea, who was empowered to try it.
Not all companies work like that. Some cultures value employees who follow instructions and don’t rock the boat. Some leaders think its disloyal to speak up about a problem that needs to be solved, or that embracing potentially disruptive innovation causes more pain than its worth. When an organization begins to change and begins to put leaders in place who will engage with those trouble makers with ideas too big for their station, old companies become young again.
Disruption is scary… and its inevitable. When the product that provides the life blood of a company is threatened by some new technology, the easiest thing for a big company to do is to try to kill that new technology. Witness cable companies desperately clinging to their broadcast video business model in the face of the Internet, or the automotive industry trying to prevent the direct sale of electric vehicles to consumers. But change is inevitable, and those who don’t embrace it eventually lose to it.
I was fortunate enough to move from an employer who values entrepreneurship to one who is beginning to embrace its own disruption — and finding that to do so requires empowering individuals and small teams to try new things. And I’m grateful that what I learned in my last job prepared me for where my new employer wants to go. It took 6 months of learning, evangelizing, planning, designing and pitching — most of that in PowerPoint, instead of a 6-pager. But as of this month, I have a team… working on my idea!
And not just any team: I got a team of really, really smart people. I have a former NASA engineer, a Phd in engineering, a physicist, and a former nuclear engineer. I’ll also have a visual designer, a fresh young developer, and dedicated QA. We’ll all report to a business leader who gave up his old gig to champion this plan, and we’re working with an architect who reports directly to our CTO. Like at my old employer, we’re giving ourselves a year to build a product — from sketches on a white board to a device on the shelves. Its audacious and disruptive and innovative. Its makes life better for our customers, and it helps change the way teams work here. And even though it took a little longer than I hoped to get it going, our leadership embraced the approach and empowered us to try it. And I couldn’t be more excited (and a little scared) to be the product owner for something new.