What Would Machiavelli Say About 21st Century Innovation?

May 16th, 2017

When Bulldog Reporter posted Innovation Matters: Biz Leaders Excel at Getting Innovation to Market—but Companies Aren’t Seeing ROI, I was simultaneously thrilled and disheartened. Thrilled with the report that almost two-thirds of global organizations see innovation as central to survival; disheartened that just 28% report success in innovation driving growth and increased revenue. 

Turning to the report that prompted the Bulldog Reporter post, I found it opened with this quote:

“It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them.”

Given the resistance Uber has faced as it entered city after city, these words could be attributed to former CEO, Travis Kalanick.

But no. These words go back. Way back, as in more than half a millennium to 1513, written by Niccolò Machiavelli.

Whoa! Innovators have been battling resistance for more than 500 years?!

Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising, but considering all the benefits innovation has delivered to everyday living, I don’t understand why exactly resistance seems to be such a constant companion to it.

But back to the Bulldog Reporter post, the recommendations from leaders in innovation deserve attention. All of the recommendations are noteworthy, but of the four presented, the last one is particularly OUTWARD looking: “Build a network for innovation.”

It suggests seeking outside the organization for new ideas. It also recommends building “executive and leadership teams with a diverse range of skills and professional backgrounds,” implying seeking outward for diversity.

These ideas are not new – seeking outside the organization, and building leadership teams with diverse skills and backgrounds. However, do we need to look at them in a new light? What treasure already exists that might be buried internally? And should “a diverse range of skills” apply only to on-the-day-job expertise?

For instance, does your organization encourage “field trips”, either as a group or individually, for associates? Might a day each month or each quarter out of the office in search of discoveries generate ideas for new products or process improvements? Or, could the skills of employees who are musicians or knitters or home-brewers in their spare time translate in some way to innovation in the office? Does a mechanism exist to release “hobby” skills into the workplace?

Whether we are management or leadership or “worker bees”, all of us are in position to look beyond the walls – whether they are walls of the cube, the office or the norms of our daily routines – to see, notice and embrace novelty and the opportunity it may present in our work.

And, if we are in leadership positions, we can help foster innovation in our organization by enabling our teams to work outside the walls, figuratively and literally.

This by no means suggests that “seeking outside” to recruit in diverse experience is unnecessary. It’s simply a reminder that buried treasure for innovation very well could exist within your organization and be an overlooked asset. When you raise the blinds to look outside, also look to see what the incoming light reveals.

Because, despite the tendency of people to resist or doubt innovation at its inception, it’s brought us a long way: from cave drawings to selfies!

Right, there ARE better examples. Ones that would impress even Machiavelli!